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What if a legal system designed to carry out justice for all failed to recognize unspeakable crimes and left countless victims of hate abandoned along the way? This isn’t just one of the many questions on our country’s collective consciousness right now. It is also the query at the center of “The Collini Case,” Marco Kreuzpaintner’s courtroom procedural set in contemporary Germany, following a startling, coldblooded case of murder carried out by motivations that seek to get even with the country’s sinful Nazi past. While the handsomely produced slow-burn—adapted from Ferdinand von Schirach’s bestselling novel by screenwriters Christian Zübert, Robert Gold and Jens Frederik Otto—attempts to examine timely and ever-relevant themes around judiciary ethics, morality, loyalty, and masculinity, it fails to rise above certain clichés, dulled further by stiff performances and a clumsy handle on the movie’s interwoven time periods.
Still, Kreuzpaintner milks the story’s mysterious nature for all it’s worth for a while, at least until numerous sign-posts spell out the secrets all too soon throughout an overstretched running time. Happenings in a fancy hotel lead us into the tale, revealing a 70-year-old Italian named Fabrizio Collini (Franco Nero) in the lobby, confessing to murdering someone while covered in blood. Only three months into his career, the fresh-off-the-boat attorney Caspar Leinen (Elyas M’Barek) finds himself court-appointed to this highly publicized, top-shelf criminal case as the defense attorney to the until-then law-abiding citizen Collini, who simply refuses to spare a single word like he’s taken a vow of silence.
But everything gets tangled when Caspar realizes that the victim is the country’s well-regarded industrial tycoon Hans Meyer, who’s pretty much fathered him throughout the '80s when he was a little boy raised by a single mom. Further complicating this already shady conflict of interest is Caspar’s former law professor Richard Mattinger (Heiner Lauterbach) serving as the young man’s fierce adversary and the complex involvement of Meyer’s granddaughter Johanna (Alexandra Maria Lara of “Rush”), Caspar’s romantic interest from the past.
Disclosing its three separate timelines in increments—present day, the '80s and the World War II era, with thousands of its Nazi criminals gone unpunished because of the so-called Dreher Law of 1968—“The Collini Case” crawls towards its eventual but obvious reveal a bit inelegantly. Along the way, a family tragedy involving Johanna’s brother and Caspar superfluously comes into play, making one feel like a big informational and emotional piece from the novel somehow went missing while being transposed into the film. Also undercooked is Caspar’s half-Turkish background. The film name-checks his heritage, but treats it like an afterthought all the same, even when Caspar’s biological dad who’s deserted his Turkish wife makes a surprise appearance and becomes an oblique clue for the ultimate exposé.
Visually, Kreuzpaintner makes the right call by shooting the ‘80s segment of “The Collini Case” on film, infusing Caspar’s childhood with the innocence and grain of memory. But that cinematic dexterity doesn’t extend to the editing room—the transitions between the eras show their seams, along with puzzling decisions such as the opening, symbolic footage of Caspar in a boxing ring—don’t serve much purpose other than muddying the narrative. On the other hand, the filmmaker pulls off courtroom scenes that are tidily parsed, and demonstrates the intensity of Caspar’s strenuous research through Italian towns and mountains of paperwork in a fairly gripping fashion. And no matter how much you can predict the true reason behind Collini’s crime, the reveal still packs a heartbreaking punch. If only the film could have embraced the beats of a thriller more.
Available on VOD today, 6/5.
Elyas M’Barek as Caspar Leinen
Heiner Lauterbach as Richard Mattinger
Alexandra Maria Lara as Johanna
Franco Nero as Fabrizio Collini
Sandro Di Stefano as Claudio Lucchesi