The Collini Case review – Nazi courtroom drama tackles postwar guilt and racism

“We need to know about the evil,” said the German lawyer-turned-bestselling-novelist Ferdinand von Schirach. “That’s the only way we can live with it.” His grandfather was head of the Hitler Youth and his grandmother served as Hitler’s secretary. Now, Von Schirach’s thriller about the legacy of Nazism featuring a grandfather with a murky past has been adapted into a watchable if sluggish and dated courtroom drama – let down by cliched storytelling and clunky acting that drains the movie of tension.

Elyas M’Barek plays newly qualified public defender Caspar Leinen, who is constantly being reminded that his Turkish heritage puts him on the outside of the establishment. Three months into the new job, he lands the case of his career, representing an Italian man accused of murdering a well-known business tycoon. The evidence leaves no doubt as to what happened: Fabrizio Collini (Franco Nero) shot Hans Meyer (Manfred Zapatka) in the head three times and stamped on his face with such force that brain matter was found on his shoe. But Collini isn’t talking and the central mystery of the movie is his motive, which has it roots in wartime events revealed in sepia flashback so conventional they sometimes feel close to parody.

The first twist is that Caspar knew the victim: Meyer was like a father, he put him through college. “Without him you’d be working in a kebab shop,” spits the old man’s granddaughter Johanna (Alexandra Maria Lara) spitefully – though her reasons for doggedly sticking by her grandfather even as his early life is exposed are never properly explored. Likewise the family’s suave lawyer, Richard Mattinger (Heiner Lauterbach), who cajoles and bullies Caspar to accept a plea deal, turns out to have a role in the past that is unsatisfactorily explained.

In real life, Von Schirach’s grandfather Baldur was sentenced to 20 years at the Nuremberg trials for crimes against humanity. At the centre of the film is a scandal involving postwar German legislation that frustrated investigations into other Third Reich war criminals, but this world of moral greys and justifications feels undeveloped and fails to come to life successfully.

The Collini Case is released on 10 September in cinemas.

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