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Originally published Friday, March 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

Oscar-winning Holocaust drama "The Counterfeiters" is on the money

Earlier this year, several critics were outraged by the Motion Picture Academy's selection of nominees for 2007's best foreign-language...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

"The Counterfeiters," with Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow. Written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, based on a book

by Adolf Burger. 99 minutes. Rated R for some strong violence, brief sexuality, nudity and language. In German, with English subtitles. Egyptian.

Earlier this year, several critics were outraged by the Motion Picture Academy's selection of nominees for 2007's best foreign-language film. For a while, it looked like a by-now-routine example of the voters' indifference to quality in subtitled cinema.

France's "Persepolis" and Romania's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," both Cannes Film Festival prizewinners, had been eliminated from the competition, and this was offered as proof that the Academy voters had terrible taste. Largely unseen outside of Academy screening rooms and their countries of origin, the five finalists were written off.

Yet, on Oscar night, quality triumphed.

One of those relatively obscure finalists, Stefan Ruzowitzky's "The Counterfeiters," which opens today at the Egyptian, became Austria's first film to win the Academy Award. And it turns out to be just as challenging and effective a political drama as "Persepolis" and "4 Months."

By taking a completely different approach to the Holocaust, by turning a true story into a unique opportunity to examine the varieties of collaboration and resistance, "The Counterfeiters" does something that "Schindler's List," "Bent" and other concentration-camp dramas have only touched on.

Its compromised Russian-Jewish central character, Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), may appear to have Schindler-like potential, but he's hard to read. A poker-faced criminal and a genius-level forger, he's been caught manufacturing phony money and recruited to help the Nazis.

At first he survives by painting apparently harmless portraits of SS officers at Mauthausen. Eventually he's transferred to another camp, Sachsenhausen, where Jewish artists and counterfeiters are treated relatively well — as long as they create credible copies of dollars and pounds.

The Nazi plan, called "Operation Bernhard," is to destroy the economies of England and the United States, but a Marxist printer, Adolf Burger (August Diehl), objects to the idea and threatens sabotage. The tensions between Sorowitsch and Burger are heightened by the presence of a slippery Nazi officer, Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow, seen last month as the thuggish husband in "Eden"), who both humiliates and praises Sorowitsch.

Based on Burger's autobiographical book, "The Devil's Workshop," the story was previously the basis for a 1981 British comedy series, "Private Schultz," but the Vienna-born Ruzowitzky takes a much more troubling and straight-

forward approach. Best-known for his documentaries, commercials and music videos, he consistently finds fresh ways to demonstrate the prisoners' moral dilemma.

Ruzowitzky claims to have been liberated by such offbeat Holocaust films as "Life Is Beautiful" and "Fateless" to approach the subject in a more personal manner. Now, he believes, "one can tell universal stories and limit oneself to small but relevant fragments of the overall truth."

The cast of veteran German and Austrian actors helps him to make each turn of events compelling. Striesow's sadistic ambiguity and Diehl's single-minded passion are essential, but the movie finally belongs to Markovics, whose seemingly indestructible cynicism carries a Bogart-style fascination.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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