The Collini Case (Der Fall Collini)

Director: Marco Kreuzpaintner
Screenplay: Christian Zübert & Robert Gold & Jens-Frederik Otto (based on the novel by Ferdinand von Schirach)
Stars: Elyas M’Barek (Caspar Leinen), Alexandra Maria Lara (Johanna Meyer), Heiner Lauterbach (Prof. Dr. Richard Mattinger), Manfred Zapatka (Hans Meyer), Jannis Niewöhner (Young Hans Meyer), Rainer Bock (Senior Prosecutor Dr. Reimers), Catrin Striebeck (Presiding Judge), Pia Stutzenstein (Nina), Peter Prager (Father Leinen), Franco Nero (Fabrizio Collini)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2019 (Europe) / 2020 (U.S.)
Country: Germany
The Collini Case
The Collini Case

The Collini Case (Der Fall Collini), as the title suggests, is a courtroom thriller, although much of the film’s suspense and tension hinges not on whether or not the accused did it, but rather why. There is no doubt that Fabrizio Collini, a towering man in his late 70s with piercing blue eyes played by the iconic Italian actor Franco Nero (Django), went into a posh hotel suite and killed a German industrialist named Hans Meyer (Manfred Zapatka). We see him walking out the hotel room and into the lobby, tracking blood behind him, and then telling one of the shocked hotel employees that Meyer is dead in the presidential suite. And he isn’t just dead, but brutally murdered—shot three time in the head at point blank range and then stomped so hard by Collini’s foot that his cheekbones were smashed.

Assigned to defend Collini, an Italian who has been living in Germany for the past three decades, is Caspar Leinen (Elyas M’Barek), a young lawyer who only just passed his bar exam three months earlier. But, there is an additional twist, as Hans was the grandfather of Caspar’s childhood sweetheart, Johanna, and had become like a second father to him (his real father left when he was two). He has already agreed to take the case when he learns who the victim was, and Meyer’s family, including Johanna (Alexandra Maria Lara), who he has not seen in a decade, expect that he will drop it. However, Caspar takes his role as defense attorney seriously, and he becomes intrigued by the case even as he is deeply disturbed by the vicious murder of the man with whom he was once so close (we see numerous flashbacks of Caspar’s interactions with Meyer and his grandchildren). Collini refuses to speak about what he did or why he did it, and his stoic silence compels Caspar to continue digging until he finally uncovers the dark secret behind the murder.

(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t yet seen the film and don’t know much about the plot, you might want to abandon the review here.)

As it turns out, Meyer was not just a generous businessman, but was rather a former Nazi SS officer during World War II who ordered the execution of 20 Italian citizens in retribution for a partisan attack that killed two of his soldiers (this element of the narrative seems to be based on the actual case of Friedrich Engel, nicknamed “The Butcher of Genoa,” although the similarities pretty much end there). Collini was a young boy at the time, and Meyer sadistically forced him to watch his father being gunned down, thus creating an emotional wound from which he could never heal.

Caspar uncovers this information with the help of his father (Peter Prager), with whom he reconnects while working on the case, and Nina (Pia Stutzenstein), a pizza delivery girl he befriends who happens to be a German-Italian translator. In the courtroom he finds himself up against Professor Mattinger (Heiner Lauterbach), a legendary attorney who taught a criminal law class when he was in law school and whose own past is tied up in Collini’s and Meyer’s, specifically in relation to the passage of a controversial law in the late 1960s that created a statute of limitations for war crimes that allowed untold numbers of Nazi war criminals to escape paying for their crimes. Thus, the film becomes both a suspenseful legal drama in which Collini’s traumatic history in the shadow of Meyer’s carefully buried evil becomes the centerpiece of the trial and a crusading piece of social criticism that lays out in no uncertain terms how laws can be legal, but hardly just.

Versatile director Marco Kreuzpaintner (Summer Storm, Trade) keeps things simple and engaging; he eschews flashy aesthetics and instead leans on the inherent intrigue of the narrative (which was adapted from a 2011 novel by lawyer-turned-bestselling author Ferdinand von Schirach) and the strength of his cast. Elyas M’Barek (Fack ju Göhte) has a handsome, but approachable screen presence, which allows Caspar to be both an idealized crusader and also a down to earth man with his own flaws and shortcomings. His commitment to the ideals of his profession are admirable, but he gives the character a real sense of conflict as he attempts to defend the killer of a man he loved and only thought he knew.

There is something fundamentally unnerving about the idea of realizing that someone close to you is capable of such monstrous actions, and if The Collini Case has a flaw, it is the lack of attention given to arguably the most intriguing character: Hans Meyer. We see quite a bit of him in flashbacks as both a stern young SS officer (Jannis Niewöhner) and as the kindly and generous grandfather that Caspar got to know as a child, but it is always in service of the legal plot. We see that he is capable of both abject evil and incredible generosity, but that paradox is left largely unexplored. Of course, that isn’t really the goal of The Collini Case, but it made me want to see more and understand more of him—how someone could be one thing at one point in his life and something completely different later on. The horrors of the past never die, but as the film shows, they can be successfully buried for a long, long time.

Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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