At first glance, “A Judge in Anxiety” is a straightforward courtroom drama about a tough, uncompromising judge (Bruno Ganz) who gets a taste of his own medicine when he is accused of the murder of a prostitute. Distinguished by first-rate performances and an ambitious script by Fred Breinersdorfer that attempts to get under the robes of its judicial subject matter, “Anxiety” ultimately suffers from the limitations of its German TV production origins. Beyond fans of the genre who are curious about the machinations of the German justice system, pic is unlikely to acquit on foreign screens.
In a nicely wrought opening sequence, unconventional attorney Abel (Gunther Maria Halmer) and his girlfriend are stopped at a drunken-driving checkpoint while on their way home from her birthday party, and he is wrongly accused of driving under the influence. His run-in with the law does provide him with a new client, an angry yuppie who’s trying to beat a speeding ticket. This leads Abel before his least-favorite jurist, Dr. Crusius, played with repressed anger and unrepressed arrogance by Ganz.
After he beats the ticket and gets a blustery lecture from Crusius, who hates to be bested in the courtroom, Abel is as shocked as the rest of the legal community when the above-reproach judge is hauled in by the police, who appear to have an open-and-shut murder case against him. It seems that a young prostitute has been found murdered, with the lethal weapon a gun belonging to Crusius.
Since Crusius has managed to anger and alienate virtually everyone he has worked with, finding an attorney to represent him becomes the first challenge in his quest for a fair trial. Abel, against his wishes, is assigned to defend Crusius, and the heart of the film is the growing relationship between the iconoclastic lawyer and the humorless judge. Rumors that the judge might in fact be homosexual begin to swirl around the case, and getting past his armor is the key to the murder mystery.
Director Josef Rodl wisely underplays the more melodramatic aspects of what develops into an intriguing, cautionary tale about the perils of the closeted life for Germany’s upper-echelon government professionals. Halmer and Ganz are a completely convincing odd couple, supported by a gallery of commendable players. But pic fails to stretch out visually and fully grasp the material’s explosive potential, and it is saddled with an obvious musical score that teeters between afterthought and heavy-handedness.
Yet “Anxiety” is still the kind of thoughtful, quietly competent and rigorously humanistic small-screen pic that offers much more food for thought than the average bigscreen diversion.