Insidious lobbyists and their manipulative skills are the target of Christoph Hochhaeusler’s dense political thriller, “The Lies of the Victors.” Although the film is too crammed with plot, which becomes unwieldy in the first half and could use some editorial tweaking, its themes gradually meld together as a hip newshound discovers he’s been led a merry dance during an investigation of slush funds and toxic-waste disposal. Damning the culture of lobbyists, as well as the way truth is circumvented or ignored when inconvenient, “Lies” gets bogged down by Hochhaeusler’s tendency to show off, yet remains a solid, absorbing drama that could see decent Euro returns.
Young, cool Fabian (Florian David Fitz) is a star reporter for a prestigious news magazine, working on a story involving sick army vets who have returned from Afghanistan, only to be shunted off to industrial waste jobs. His mercurial informer keeps getting the jitters, and to expedite things, Fabian’s boss Hannes Hubach (Horst Kotterba) pairs him with young intern Nadja (Lilith Stangenberg). Fabian’s a maverick and chafes at this greenhorn by his side, so he fobs her off on a story about a vet who was torn to pieces when he jumped into a lion enclosure at the zoo.
The two stories wind up being connected when Nadja discovers that the veteran was working at the same toxic-waste disposal factory where Fabian’s returning soldiers were placed. Getting anyone to talk, however, becomes impossible, and there’s no autopsy report that could corroborate suspicions about industrial poisons found in the vet’s body.
Nefarious things are afoot below the surface: Hochhaeusler weaves in scenes at a lobbying firm headed by ice-bitch Karina von May (Ursina Lardi), who’s coaching waste-disposal exec Nailly (Gottfried Breitfuss) on how to conduct a meeting with politico Dellbrueck (Karl Fischer) in order to guarantee that the German government allows the ultra-lucrative toxic-recycling industry to continue getting a free pass. When the firm realizes Fabian is closing in on the truth, they cleverly feed him info that sends him off on a false lead.
It’s easy to imagine the helmer and regular co-scripter Ulrich Petzler in brainstorming sessions about their central character: “Let’s make him a diabetic!” “Let’s make him a chronic gambler!” Each piece expands the picture yet feels too constructed, especially as the scribes have neglected to give Fabian friends or family. Perhaps that’s due to his arrogance, guaranteed to cause friction with the buttoned-up Nadja — buttoned up literally as well as figuratively, since she’s mostly dressed in men’s shirts, conspicuously closed to the very top.
Even more than in his 2010 drama, “The City Below,” Hochhaeusler takes aim at the business world, which dictates government policy thanks to a level of influence peddling that is carefully, almost scientifically honed. The tale may be fictionalized, but the existence of a secretly ruling capitalist elite finds plenty of resonance in contempo news stories, from Halliburton to the recent wave of hacking scandals. This deliberate alignment with real investigative reports places “The Lies of the Victors” within a long line of political thrillers such as “Silkwood” (although that really was based on fact).
Unlike many examples of the genre, however, the pic seems to deliberately complicate the level and amount of information it doles out, at least in the first half, which makes it rather heavy going at times. When Hochhaeusler incongruously tosses in the well-worn clip of Humphrey Bogart from “Deadline U.S.A.,” cynically declaring “That’s the press, baby!” it feels particularly unnecessary, smacking of directorial self-indulgence not dissimilar to Fabian’s own self-satisfaction.
The chemistry between Fitz and Stangenberg never quite gels, though this is more the fault of the script than of the actors; Fabian’s unlikely fantasy of kissing Nadja really doesn’t work. Corporate scenes have all the expected sleek coldness, enhanced by Renate Schmaderer’s production design, which emphasizes the lobbyists’ spare, soulless rigidity.