Farce is not a genre we commonly associate with the Germans, but then, as “Operation Curveball” reminds us at the outset, this wildly atypical Teutonic satire — which plays like a cross between “Wag the Dog” and “Dr. Strangelove” in its portrayal of incompetence at the highest levels — is “A true story. Unfortunately.” More mea culpa than comedy, assuming/assigning responsibility for the role Germany played in helping George W. Bush settle a score with Saddam Hussein, director Johannes Naber’s nutso sendup of the unreliable intelligence source whose testimony served as the justification for the U.S. to invade Iraq in 2003 has no trouble being outrageous. The challenge comes down to being funny in the process.
A few years back, Matthias Bittner made a very good documentary about Rafid Alwan, code name “Curveball,” called “War of Lies,” and that film takes a grim, serious-minded look at what motivated this former Iraqi chemical engineer to peddle fantasies of weapons of mass destruction to German authorities. In exchange for a European passport, lodging and a modest income, Alwan gave the authorities exactly what they wanted, never imagining that his little fibs would be cited as evidence — the only evidence — needed to bomb the bejesus out of his homeland.
“What is truth?” inquires “Operation Curveball” at the outset. Aiming for the fast-paced, irreverent tone that seems to come so easily to political swashbucklers Armando Iannucci (“Veep”) and Chris Morris (“Four Lions”) over in the U.K., Naber and co-writer Oliver Keidel struggle to find the right tone. They’ve based their screenplay in extensive research, which is apparent in the absurdist details they choose to include, although the movie stumbles often into slapstick, and its attempt at biting repartee comes off even clumsier than the physical comedy much of the time. Despite the title — which has become a point of contention, to the extent that the film was presented as “Untitled” at the Berlin Film Festival amid rumblings of a lawsuit by an American company — the main character isn’t Curveball but Dr. Arndt Wolf (Sebastian Blomberg), an obsessive bioweapons expert.
Like dogged conspiracy theorist Fox Mulder of “The X-Files,” Wolf wants to believe. We meet him in 1997, four years before the World Trade Center attack, scouring Iraq with a multinational inspection team exasperated by their inability to find weapons of mass destruction. This prologue establishes not only how desperately Wolf yearns to be proved right, but also his sketchy ethics: While on assignment, he’s having an affair with Leslie (Virginia Kull), his CIA counterpart. Like Blomberg, who’s far from leading-man material, Kull’s character really calls for a stronger actor, since these two will become key figures in the Curveball story post-9/11, when the U.S. starts looking for any justification to invade Iraq.
Back in Germany, Wolf’s supervisors at the country’s Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, call him in to evaluate the man they’re calling Curveball, played by first-season “Game of Thrones” vet Dar Salim with the tough-to-trust unctuousness of a used car dealer. Alwan is charming, but he doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, guzzling Coca-Cola in quantities more toxic than any chemical Saddam might be manufacturing back home. Alwan is a scientist, and he speaks the same language as Wolf (as it turns out, he’s lifting some concepts — including the idea of mobile weapons laboratories — directly from Wolf’s own published reports), feeding his interrogators what they want to hear.
These early scenes are frustrating and feel somewhat strained as Naber skewers the BND’s gullibility while floating the idea that Germany’s entire intelligence operation suffers from an elaborate inferiority complex. According to this thinking, Curveball represents a valuable asset for an agency that simply can’t compete with the resources and experience of the Americans, and when 9/11 happens, they find themselves holding an ace. Never mind that virtually nothing Alwan has told them checks out, or that his speculative diagram of Saddam’s mobile labs looks like something a kindergarten student might have scrawled in crayon.
Wolf believes him, and calling upon Leslie for a favor meant to corroborate his testimony, he accidentally tips the BND’s hand. Before he knows it, Leslie is pulling rank, trying to steal his source and reworking Curveball’s sketch into something that Secretary of State Colin Powell can present to the U.N. as a plausible reason to invade Iraq. So far, so scintillating, although “Operation Curveball” goes off the rails in the final third as Wolf suddenly develops a conscience and decides to intercede directly on Alwan’s behalf.
Audiences already know what happened on the macro level: Bush bombed the heck out of Baghdad, despite that no WMDs were ever recovered and no credible connection existed between Iraq and al-Qaida’s attack on the World Trade Center. Curveball was never the catalyst but merely a footnote in the administration’s foregone plan to invade Iraq. On one hand, this whole backstory is far too important to be taken so casually, and yet, at the same time, Germany seems to be flattering itself that any of this matters. What all of this taught us is that if an American president wants to start an illegal war, he doesn’t need justification but conviction, and no one can stop him.
So it all feels rather petty — more annoying than amusing — for a movie to care quite so much what happens to Alwan after the damage has been done, while greater powers are causing untold casualties on another stage entirely. But “Operation Curveball’s” screwball premise assumes that audiences will enjoy watching bumbling chase sequences and slapstick routines in which Wolf goes to extreme lengths to rescue Alwan from the Americans. If anything feels damning (beyond weak cut-downs of currywurst and other easy-target German traditions), it’s the implication that BND brass knew their reports were incorrect but preferred not to contradict the Americans. The film ends by reminding that the organization’s then-chief of staff now serves as Germany’s federal president, although that should surprise no one. History is written by the victors, whereas satires really ought to be written by cleverer wits than these.