“Genghis Cohn” is a brief, entertaining comedy that packs a serious punch, thanks to Stanley Price’s smart adaptation of Romain Gary’s audacious novel, and superior work from director Elijah Moshinsky and his trio of stars.
After a fast, stylish prologue, the bulk of the story takes place in 1958 Bavaria, where former SS officer Otto Schatz (Robert Lindsay) is now chief of police and is suddenly confronted by the ghost of Genghis Cohn (Antony Sher), a Jewish entertainer he put to death in Auschwitz.
When a series of sex-related murders occur in the village, Genghis volunteers to help Otto, who is tormented, amused and fascinated by the ghost.
Encouraged by Genghis, Otto begins eating chopped liver, reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” and using Yiddish expressions, finding more success in creating a new lifestyle than in solving the killings.
Director Moshinsky does a terrific job of finding a tone that is light but never frivolous. All the plot strands and thematic elements come together in literally the last few moments of the film.
The pic is not without its faults. Some may be offended by the audacity in approaching such a serious subject with less-than-somber tones. And, less significantly, Americans may be bothered by the omnipresent British accents in Bavaria.
But exec producer Mark Shivas and producer Ruth Caleb have assembled a first-rate package for the BBC-A&E production.
Lindsay gives a hilariously controlled performance — until Otto goes out of control and Lindsay really shines. He gets excellent support from Sher as a leering, unsettling Genghis, and from the actress who can do no wrong, Diana Rigg, lovely and witty as a lusty baroness who longs for the good old days of the Third Reich.
The lush, evocative production design and cinematography are by Tony Burrough and John Daly, respectively. Ken Pearce’s editing is fast and effective, and Carl Davis’ outstanding score helps sustain the mood of the piece.