Producers: Christoph Müller, Kerstin Schmidbauer, Marcel Hartges and Martin Moszkowicz   Director: Marco Kreuzpainter   Screenplay: Christian Zübert, Robert Gold and Jens-Frederik Otto   Cast: Elyas M’Barek, Alexandra Maria Lara, Heiner Lauterbach, Manfred Zapatka, Jannis Niewöhner, Rainer Bock, Catrin Striebeck, Pia Stuzenstein, Peter Prager and Franco Nero   Distributor: MPI Media Group

Grade:  B

Marco Kreuzpainter’s somber, contrived but compelling courtroom drama is based on a best-selling 2011 novel by lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach, whose grandfather Baldur von Schirach headed the Hitler Youth until 1940 and then served as governor of the Vienna region, overseeing the deportation of Austrian Jews to the death camps, though he claimed not to know where they were being sent and even protested about their treatment. Tried at Nuremberg, he denounced Hitler but was nonetheless convicted of war crimes and sentenced to twenty years, serving out the full sentence in Spandau before his release.

Screenwriters Christian Zübert, Robert Gold and Jens-Frederik Otto begin their adaptation by juxtaposing two separate sequences: shots of a young man (Elyas M’Barek), later identified as lawyer Caspar Leinen, who has just passed the bar as it were, sparring in a boxing ring, and the murder of elderly industrialist Hans Meyer (Manfred Zapatka) in what turns out to be the presidential suite of a ritzy hotel.  There’s no doubt about who killed him: it’s a grizzled fellow named Fabrizio Collini (Franco Nero), who immediately goes to the lobby and tearfully reports Meyer’s death to a member of the staff.  Then he confesses to the police and falls silent. 

The two threads converge when Caspar is approached to serve as Collini’s public defender and quickly agrees.  At the time he doesn’t know the name of the victim, which might have given him pause, because Meyer had virtually adopted Caspar, a German of Turkish descent, as a child and taken him into the bosom of his family, where he was the closest of friends with Meyer’s grandson Philipp and his sister Johanna.  Even after Philipp and his parents were killed in an auto accident, Caspar remained close to both Hans and Johanna.  Now his relationship with her will be frayed when he decides to remain on the case despite her pleas that he should withdraw as Collini’s counsel.

But Caspar has other problems. The inexperienced young man will have to deal not only with a rigorous presiding judge (Catrin Striebeck) but a seasoned prosecutor (Rainer Bock)—and the Meyer family has hired Caspar’s old teacher, the brilliant lawyer Richard Mattinger (Heiner Lauterbach) to join the prosecution team.  Worse yet, Collini refuses to speak to him or explain the motive behind the killing.  The situation seems hopeless as the trial nears.

It’s the reappearance of Caspar’s long-absent father (Peter Prager) at Meyer’s funeral that induces him to investigate Collini’s past to discover the reason behind the killing.   Helped by his father and Nina (Pia Stuzenstein), a pretty student he meets at a pizzeria, he learns something about the young Hans (played in flashback by Jannis Niewöhner) that changes the complexion of the case, explaining why Johanna and Mattinger are so intent on settling the matter with a plea bargain.

Given the plot’s being set in 2001 and the history of Germany in the twentieth century, it’s not difficult to calculate what the revelation about Meyer will be, at least in general terms; but when shown, the details carry considerable power, especially since Kreuzpainter and his behind-the-camera collaborators, cinematographer Jakub Bejnarowicz and editor Johannes Hubrich, stage the relevant flashback so expertly.    

There are numerous other flashbacks scattered throughout the film, and Hubrich doesn’t always manage the transitions as smoothly as he might, though Bejnarowicz cunningly differentiates them visually from the “contemporary” material. There’s also a feeling of stiffness in some of the performances (M’Barek and Lara occasionally seem ill at ease), as well as heavy-handedness in the symbolism (the opening pugilism as an indication of Caspar’s fighting spirit, the breakdown of the classic Mercedes Hans had given Caspar just at the point when he begins to have doubts about the dead man).  Nor does the script make as much of its hero’s Turkish roots—intended of course to make oblique reference to German attitudes toward “the other”—as it could.

But with standout turns from Lauterbach, Niewöhner and Nero (who conveys more through body language than many actors do with volumes of words) and fine work from production designer Josef Sanktjohanser, “The Collini Case” emerges, despite minor flaws, as a taut and engrossing legal procedural that has more on its mind than simply reaching a verdict on one man’s guilt or innocence.  Its final revelation might not be a shocking surprise, but a courtroom confrontation between Leinen and Mattinger at the close effectively articulates the larger point that von Schirach was intent on making in his book—about how post-war Germany chose to manipulate the scales of justice in its treatment of those who hadn’t achieved the same degree of notoriety as his own grandfather.