Ansen on Oscar's best foreign film

In prewar Berlin, when Salomon (Sally) Sorowitsch needed money, he printed it himself. A Russian Jew with a gift for painting, he asked himself, "Why make art when you can make money?" He meant what he said. Turning his talents to crime, Sorowitsch became a world-renowned art forger and counterfeiter—until he was arrested and thrown into a concentration camp. There he became the ultimate survival artist—his counterfeiting skills saved his life.

The fascinating and morally complex Austrian movie "The Counterfeiters"—which won this year's Oscar for best foreign film—is based on a true but little-known story of the Holocaust. To finance their war effort, the Nazis ran a top-secret counterfeiting lab at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where Jewish prisoners with skills in printmaking, banking, graphic design and larceny were given special privileges and lodging, isolating them from the horrors on the other side of the fence. The Nazis printed more than 130 million British pound notes, hoping to flood the economy of the enemy. Their next goal was to perfect the U.S. dollar—an even bigger challenge—and they needed a master like Sorowitsch to pull off their plan.

The craggy, pragmatic Sally, played by Karl Markovics, is a man who gives little of himself away. The gaunt, hatchet-faced actor exudes a feral cunning, but he lets you see the pride Sally takes in his work. Before he arrives in Sachsenhausen, he has spent time in the Mauthausen camp, where he survived by becoming the Nazi officers' official portrait painter, posing them in heroic stances to flatter their egos. Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky doesn't try to make us like his protagonist; Sally is chilly and emotionally well-defended, a master at deflecting whatever guilt he may feel for aiding the Nazi war effort. As he puts it, he refuses to give the Nazis the pleasure of being ashamed to be alive.

The movie is based on the memoirs of a survivor of the counterfeiting team, Adolf Burger, who is played as a fiery young man by August Diehl. Burger, an idealistic man of action who wants to lead a revolt against the counterfeiters' captors, sees Sally's dedication to his work as an act of collaboration. He wants to sabotage the counterfeiting efforts, knowing full well that if their sabotage is detected they will be sent to the gas chambers. Sally takes his survival one day at a time—he'd rather be gassed tomorrow than shot today. Thematically "The Counterfeiters" revisits the dilemma faced by Alec Guinness's Col. Nicholson in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," his perfectionist's pride in building a bridge for the Japanese enemy in conflict with his mission as a British officer.

Ruzowitzky (whose own grandparents were Nazi sympathizers) does not presume to judge. His gritty, fast-moving moral thriller forces us to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions, chiefly: what would we do in this situation? He keeps the worst horrors of the concentration camp offscreen, but like the conscripted counterfeiters, we're always aware of the atrocities that are being kept at bay. The clothes they wear have been taken from the bodies, most of them now dead, of their fellow Jews. The lucky ones, Sally and his team, get soft beds and more edible food, and when their work goes well, they're rewarded with a ping-pong table. It's details like that—too bizarre not to be true—that give "The Counterfeiters" its bitter wallop. It's an astonishing tale of cunning, compromise and survival.