When the German Supreme Court nullified a law allowing the Luftwaffe to shoot down hijacked planes that had been weaponized, many predicted it would provide an incentive for future terrorists to do exactly that. The waters were further muddied when then Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung announced he would still probably give the order to shoot down airliners seized for terrorist purposes. He ignited a media firestorm, but it was probably prudent to increase the uncertainty amongst the al-Qaedas, Daeshes, and Hammases of the world. That uncertainty also extends to German public opinion as well, judging from the enormous ratings and social media response to Lars Kraume’s The Verdict (trailer here), a television feature adaptation of Ferdinand von Schirach’s play dramatizing exactly such an extra-legal shootdown, which screens during the 2017 KINO! festival of German Cinema in New York.
As an extra added hook, German viewers were invited to cast their vote to help determine the verdict of the Federal Republic of Germany vs. Major Lars Koch, updating the gimmick of Ayn Rand’s Broadway hit, The Night of January 16th. Most of the evidence in the case is not in dispute. A commercial airliner was indeed hijacked by Islamist terrorists (a fact conveniently confirmed by their own gloating broadcasts). They did indeed point the plane towards a football stadium packed with 70,000 fans, nearly all of whom would have likely died, had Maj. Koch not shot the plane, still carrying 164 innocent passengers and crew, out of the sky. He did so against the orders of the ranking duty officer, yet it is clear his superior was greatly relieved when Maj. Koch engaged the airliner anyway.
Perhaps it is partly due to our proximity to Ground Zero, but the moral case for Maj. Koch’s actions, 70,000 vs. 164 who are essentially doomed anyway, seems nearly impossible to question. The prosecutor’s concerns for the dignity of life denied to the hijacking victims by denying them another five minutes of terror approach the absurd. Yet, perversely, the guilty verdict scene sounds much more in accordance with German law, whereas the innocent verdict is more interesting from a dramatic perspective, but the legal rationale definitely sounds forced.
Regardless, as a courtroom drama, The Verdict is tight, tense, and often fascinating. As Maj. Koch, Florian David Fitz so adroitly balances personal anguish and moral conviction, it almost fatally tilts the film in his favor. Lars Eidinger is terrific as his sharp-tongued attorney Herr Biegler. Martina Gedeck is also quite commanding as prosecutor Nelson, almost managing to sell an argument that could just as logically support the most extreme anti-abortion prohibitions.
Hopefully, the huge ratings Verdict has scored all over Europe will spur the German government to better resolve what looks like a rather awkward constitutional and national security conundrum. To put it in colloquial American legal terms, the facts seem to be on Koch’s side and the law seems to be on Nelson’s side, but since this is a German legal proceeding, nobody resorts to cheap table-pounding. In fact, the German setting (the glass and steel courtroom, the powder blue uniforms) is rather cinematic and makes it easier to believe an officer in Koch’s position would face a very public criminal trial for his actions. It just seems like a very Euro thing to do. Highly recommended, The Verdict screens this Tuesday (4/4) as part of this year’s KINO! in New York.