The Collini Case is a courtroom drama adapted from a book written by Ferdinand von Schirach, a laywer-turned-novelist in the John Grisham mould, though being German and having been born in 1964, von Schirach has a different set of concerns.
He would have been about 13 when the murder of industrialist and former Nazi SS man Hanns Martin Schlayer happened in 1977, at the hands of the Red Army Faction (aka the Baader-Meinhof Gang). He doesn’t directly reference that killing but it informs his book and this film, which is set in the here and now (ish) but is concerned with old atrocities and a peculiarity of the German penal code which allowed many criminals from the Nazi era to go unpunished.
In von Schirach’s story, brought glamorously to the screen by director Marco Kreuzpaintner, the murder of an aged German industrialist, Hans Meyer (see what von Schirach did there?) happens in the opening moments, at the hands of an aged Italian, Fabrizio Collini. Collini clearly did it – there’s “brain tissue” on the man’s shoes, which he’s ruined kicking the dead man’s skull in after shooting him (all, thankfully, off camera) – but will offer no explanation for his actions, not even to his court-appointed defence lawyer, Caspar Leinen.
Leinen is a rookie who barely knows his way round the system, and this case could be the making of him, which is why he hangs on to it even when he discovers who the accused man murdered – twinkly Meyer had always been like a father to him and had even gone so far as to give the young Leinen the classic Mercedes he still drives around in. Conflict of interest to one side, and against the hissing disapproval of the dead man’s grand-daughter (Alexandra Maria Lara, good at hissing disapproval), with whom Leinen’s long had a bit of an on-off thing, he ploughs on, his research eventually leading him to the Second World War where all is revealed. Almost.
Von Schirach is interested not just in war crimes but also in the legalistic bit of fancy footwork that the German legal system deployed in the 1960s to make many of the problems associated with the Nazi era go away. He’s found a neat way of putting a human-interest spin on a dry bit of legislation that got a lot of murderous bastards off the hook.
Elyas M’Barek plays Leinen, his Turkish heritage a factor in his casting, since the plot deals with the role of racism in Germany, now and in the past, though again von Schirach makes this personal not political. It’s the standard “rookie on the rise” “underdog has his day” role in many respects, and as Leinen delves into the past and turns detective, M’Barek is also required to do a bit of face-pulling as a “detective with a troubled past” element enters the equation. Nicely played, in a quiet, understated way.
Franco Nero plays Collini, and there isn’t an awful lot for the spaghetti western veteran to do in a role that’s all about saying nothing, explaining nothing. I’m guessing that for many he was last seen in a tiny cameo in Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Here he simmers gently, his bright blue eyes doing much of the signalling of emotions withheld. I’ve seen “Nero’s best role in years” accolades being handed out here and there by people getting carried away. He’s good, in a quietly dignified way, though the strong silent type is a tough gig.
Third leg of this stool is the excellently urbane Heiner Lauterbach as the prosecution counsel Professor Dr (the Germans like their titles) Richard Mattinger, an ageing patrician with the hawkish profile and swept back hair of many a screen Nazi. Entirely appropriately cast. Say no more.
All three underplay, deliberately, this being about quiet conspiracies rather than big overt actions, and it’s a great story, though it saves most of its novelties for the last act. Dip out before then and you’ve enjoyed a decent and reasonably familiar drama of the sort you can catch on TV most nights of the week, albeit beautifully shot in rich tones and with a painterly use of the widescreen format (nods to DP Jakub Bejnarowicz). But don’t do that. Hang on till the end, when all is revealed, in a development that’s as much about an actual event as it is about this fictional though brilliantly illustrative story.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021