(English and German dialogue)
Dani Levy’s “The Giraffe” is a slickly shot, Nazis-under-the-rug political thriller that’s handicapped by rather ordinary dialogue and subject matter that in recent years has become more the province of TV movies. Largely set in New York and filmed in English, pic represents a conscious gamble by Berlin-based production house X-Filme Creative Pool to broaden its slate of purely Euro arthouse fare. Irony is that X-Filme’s German-lingo “Run Lola Run” is likely to create more theatrical waves offshore than the internationally-styled “Giraffe,” whose true market nowadays is mostly on the small screen.
Film is very much a collaborative effort between actor-helmer Dani Levy, one of X-Filme’s cofounders, and his actress partner Maria Schrader, both of whom last worked together on the same company’s much artier “Silent Night,” a notable bomb in Germany two years ago. Schrader, who also coscripted, toplines as Lena, the Gotham-based granddaughter of a Jewish chocolate-factory owner, Eliah Goldberg (Lukas Ammann), whose premises are torched by anti-Semites in a small German town.
In New York, German emigre Mrs. Fish (Lynn Cohen) reads about the fire and calls her son David (Levy) to tell him she recognizes Goldberg — he is her father, long believed dead. David hires a Jewish activist lawyer, Charles Kaminski (David Strathairn), to make contact with Goldberg and try to sort out the truth.
Meanwhile, Lena, visiting her mom (Nicole Heesters) at the hotel where she’s staying while on a visit to New York, finds Mrs. Fish dying in the corridor. At the hospital where Mrs. Fish is taken, Lena and David meet for the first time and slowly — rather too slowly — untangle the complex truth of their linked backgrounds that stretch back 50 years.
Though it starts with an act of anti-Semitic violence in contempo Germany, the movie is more about shared histories and the legacies of the Nazi era than modern neo-fascism. In that respect, it’s a thoroughly commercial thriller, in “Marathon Man” style, but with lingering European influences in the direction and without that movie’s star power and gripping set pieces. The complex plot involving switched identities requires concentration to follow and ends more with a whimper than a bang when the action relocates to Germany in the pic’s latter stages.
Though Schrader is a fine actress with the right material and makes a good showing in English, she seems uncomfortable with the constraints of a genre role and elicits few sparks on-screen with Levy, whose character suffers from poor post-synching. Strathairn is OK in a familiar role as the hardened lawyer.
Film’s main weakness is the dialogue, which doesn’t flow easily and is almost all at the service of the plot rather than characterization. The true stars of the picture are Levy’s regular d.p., Carl Koschnick, whose widescreen, zoom-compressed lensing is standout; composer Niki Reiser, whose omnipresent, Hebraic-flavored score pushes the pic along, and editor Sabine Hoffmann, whose cutting doesn’t leave an inch of spare flesh.
Until late in production, the film was titled “Meschugge” (“Don’t”). Final, much better title, refers to the nickname of a character who was once head of Treblinka concentration camp.