Genre of the Week: The Collini Case

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On May 24, 1968, the West German government passed a resolution calling for the partial exoneration of much of its population for their roles during the era of Adolf Hitler which lasted from 1933 until Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945, thus ending World War II in the European theater. The Act, known as the Einführungsgesetz zum Gesetz über Ordnungswidrigkeiten (EGOWiG), called for all crimes committed against humanity to either be considered a minor offence or dismissed altogether. The argument for the EGOWiG was that these crimes happened over two decades ago and that the statue of limitations would have long since expired. The enactment of EGOWiG sparked an outrage among the population, whose wounds caused by the oppression of the Hitler Regime and the subsequent result of World War II, had not been healed.  Half of the population saw the “Verharmlosung” (playing down) of the crimes to be heinous- on par with the crimes against humanity already carried out through the Holocaust. The other half saw EGOWiG as an attempt to close the book on Germany’s dark past and to allow the people to move on with their lives, even those who had active involvement during the Third Reich and were scarred as a result. 

EGOWiG remained in force until November 30, 2007, and even though the government claimed that it was not valid for use anymore, prosecutors and activists continued pursuing the remaining living people of that time, who were involved with the atrocities. The purpose was to bring their crimes to light and help the population remember the atrocities and ensure they never happen again. The trial of a 100-year old concentration camp worker scheduled to take place this year may be the last of a string of trials and convictions which started with John Demjanjuk’s trial and guilty verdict in 2011.

EGOWiG was the focus of a combination of a novel and a film that one should see and even talk about. The Collini Case was a novel written by Ferdinand von Schirach in 2011. The plot of the story was set in Berlin, where a retired person of Italian descent, named Collini, stormed a company owned by Jean-Baptiste Meyer and shot him three times at point blank range, killing him instantly. He then turned himself in when police arrived at the crime scene. He was represented by the defense lawyer Caspar Leinen. After not being able to meet halfway even in terms of communication, Leinen, who is the protagonist in the story, goes to Collini’s hometown of Montecatini in Italy, where the lawyer finds out the horrifying truth behind the killer’s motives. Leinen gets help from his father, who researches the atrocities committed during the Nazi occupation, and a woman named Nina, who is a student of business and Italian.

It was revealed that Meyer was a Nazi commandant who stormed an Italian town seeking revenge for the murders of two of his comrades. Using the 10 to two ratio, he ordered the execution of 20 of the townsmen, including Collini’s father, which Collini himself was forced by Meyer to watch the execution. The incident was one of many committed by the Nazis during its two-year occupation of Italy, where nearly 100,000 citizens of different social and ethnic backgrounds lost their lives. Attempts to bring Meyer to court by Collini and his sister failed in 1968. Then he remained silent until his sister’s death in 2001, the year of the story setting, where he committed his act of revenge on Meyer.

The story has a lot of twists and turns which started off with some memories of Leinen, when Meyer himself took him in for adoption when he was a child. Then there were memories of him and his close friend Johanna, who was Meyer’s granddaughter, whom Meyer himself parented when she lost both her parents and brother in a car accident in 1991, yet it becomes strained when Leinen represented Collini in the court case and pushed to the breaking point when she learned of the crimes her grandfather had committed while Leinen presented the facts. What led to the exultation of the defendant was the testimony of the prosecutor, whom Leinen questioned about his involvement in the EGOWiG ruling in 1968. The prosecutor, who was close to retirement, had played the role of the antagonist and tried very hard to bring Collini to justice and keep the EGOWiG a permanent secret, something that he failed in the end.

The novel was converted to a film by written by Christian Zübert, Robert Gold, and Jens-Frederik Otto, and was directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner. Released in 2019, the film starred Elyas M’Barek, who had previously starred in the Fack ju Göthe trilogy as well as voiced the German version of Paddington Bear. Collini was played by Franco Nero. The film has been nominated for accolades in both Germany as well as in Isreal but has won just the Haugesund Filmfestival Award in 2020. Still, after watching the entire film in its entirety, it will likely receive more accolades for its work, especially as it features historic fiction with a story based on events that happened in the past.

Events like that of the EGOWiG. The film and the novel is important for much of the attempts to sweep the tragedies under the rug still exist to this day. We don’t need to look further than the incident in Washington, DC on January 6th of this year, when outgoing US President Donald Trump marched onto the Capitol demanding that the votes from the November 6th Elections be overturned, only to watch thousands of his followers storm onto the grounds and into the building in what is now called the Insurrection.  These events drew stark parallels to the burning of the Reichtstag Building in Berlin in 1932, prior to Hitler’s rise to power. But attempts on the part of Trump’s supporters to turn a blind eye at the expense of those who defended the Capitol, let alone those who want to get down to the bottom of the incident has the same pattern as when Germany tried to exonerate those involved as a Nazi during Hitler’s regime with the EGOWiG. Still, like the Collini Case shows, no matter how hard a person tries to ignore it, or even cover it up, the constant variable that always prevail is justice. The truth will always be uncovered and justice will be served, no matter how and no matter the consequences. And even when Collini was at peace when the ECOWiG was exposed in the court trial towards the end, justice did have its consequences both affecting the past as well as the present.

The question that is left from this review is what happens when such exposures like this one in the novel and film, affects the future, in terms of friendships, careers and the like. This depends on how the affected are able or even willing embrace this new discovery. As a general rule, such discoveries bring out the real characters in a person. There are those who are willing to get it over with and be at peace. There are those who are not willing to hear it and want to continue as is.  The Collini Case provides us with this food for thought: Actions impact the future of the person who committed it. What was done in the past will be uncovered in the future.

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