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'Counterfeiters' Has Real Shot at Foreign Film Oscar

JACKI LYDEN, host:

The Academy Awards ceremony is just a day away, and this year, one of the toughest categories to predict is the Best Foreign Language Film. That's because three of the nominees haven't opened in the U.S. yet, and several foreign-language films that have opened, like "The Diving Bell" and "The Butterfly," "La Vie En Rose" and "Persepolis," were barred from competing in the category.

But critic Bob Mondello says the Austrian nominee, which just opened this weekend, could have a decent shot. It's a World War II drama called "The Counterfeiters."

Mr. BOB MONDELLO (Film Critic): In 1936, forger Salomon Sorowitsch is known to Berlin's Jewish underground as a criminal who can make undetectable fake passports. He's also known to the head of the Nazi's counterfeit squad, who shows up one night to arrest him.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Counterfeiters")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).

Mr. MONDELLO: There on the desk is a surprise: the master forger's latest project, the dollar.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Counterfeiters")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) The dollar.

Mr. MONDELLO: An ambitious forgery that gets sidelined as Sorowitsch is sent to Austria's Mauthausen concentration camp, where his ability to paint propaganda murals and portraits of the guards keeps him alive for several years - barely.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Counterfeiters")

(Soundbite of gunshot)

(Soundbite of dog yelping)

Mr. MONDELLO: Then one day, he's summoned by a Nazi officer he recognizes, the head of the counterfeit squad that arrested him. The Nazis have come up with a plot to destabilize the U.S. and British economies by flooding them with fake currency on a massive scale. To do that, they need to make persuasive fake currency, and in a death-camp compound separated from the rest of the camp, where music plays the inmates wear civilian clothes, Sorowitsch is introduced not to fellow forgers but to artists, printers, paper makers and bankers.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Counterfeiters")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Solomon Sorowitsch.

Mr. MONDELLO: Their assignment: To make perfect dollars and pound notes or die. And with music blaring in the background to drown out the screams of the prisoners outside, they set to work.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Counterfeiters")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4 (Singer): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

Mr. MONDELLO: Many Holocaust dramas have hinged on the moral compromises and guilt felt by survivors, but the story being told by Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky, a fictionalized version of real events, isn't about just any Jew surviving the Holocaust.

It's about a shyster, a criminal who is suddenly responsible for the lives of honest men, whose passion for forgery gets allied with far darker ends than his own and whose code of honor among thieves gets pitted against the consciences of a fiercely moral communist who sabotages their efforts, knowing that what keeps them alive could doom countless others.

"The Counterfeiters" is based on a memoir written by that communist, and since it centers on a character he clearly doesn't like, it's a tricky film to navigate emotionally. The director lines up stereotypes and moral dilemmas too neatly, almost as if the film, if it's going to work, needs to be as insulated from the real world as the characters are from death camp horrors.

Of course, the horrors filter through, and the dilemmas remain daunting.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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