Under the heavy hand of Joseph Vilsmaier, “Leo & Claire” transforms yet another chapter of German history into glossy soap opera. The true story of a happily married Jewish businessman hounded, prosecuted and ultimately beheaded during World War II for his friendship with a German woman that is misconstrued by nearly everyone as an affair, pic’s sensationalistic, often incoherent treatment of the material will prove a huge disappointment to even the most well-meaning of specialty fests, with tube play and vidstore obscurity a more appropriate fate.
In 1933 Nuremberg, Leo Katzenberger (Michael Degen) runs a successful shoe business from the courtyard of the apartment building he owns. He adores his wife, Claire (Suzanne von Borsody), lovely daughters and extended family, and seems to be grudgingly well respected by his gossip-prone tenants.
To the dreadfully obvious strains of Jimmy Lunceford’s jaunty “Ain’t She Sweet,” blond beauty Irene Scheffler (Franziska Petri) shows up to open a photography studio, sending the men into an inflamed tizzy and winning Leo over into a cozy but platonic friendship. Leo’s refusal to be discreet in an increasingly hostile social environment results in his arrest and trial. After his execution, the inevitable title cards document the fate of the Katzenberger family.
Things begin badly when Vilsmaier fails to create even the most fundamental spatial relationships among the various courtyard apartments, resulting in a series of shots of tenants peering out from behind curtains but no cumulative idea of who’s spying on whom or why. “Leo & Claire” is also the kind of movie where characters pop up on different continents from one shot to the next.
Large cast does the best it can with the extremely uneven dramatic tone and perfunctory direction. Too often painted as a naive buffoon, Leo gains some dignity via Degen’s expressiveness, while Petri brings a warmth and poise to Irene even as she’s required to spend much of the early going bathing or dancing nude near a window. Although not her fault, von Borsody hardly registers as the severely underwritten Claire; apparently at no point did it dawn on anyone to use the much more accurate title “Leo & Irene.”
Tech credits are tops, as Vilsmaier — who operates his own camera — clearly knows how to capture pretty pictures, evidenced throughout a high-profile career that includes “Stalingrad,” “Comedian Harmonists” and “Marlene.” The knowledge of what to do with such images, however, continues to elude him.