There is an invigorating cinema to be found within the trials and travails of the French judicial system. Last year he proved it with Alice Diop’s brilliant ‘Saint Omer’ and this year cinephiles can already add another film to the ranks of French fact-based enthralling legal dramas: ‘The Goldman Case’, the invigorating retelling of Cédric Kahn’s 1976 trial involving Pierre Goldman, a Jewish radical accused of killing two women in a pharmacy robbery.
Kahn uses the simplicity of his film’s structure – the action rarely leaves the courtroom – to underline the complexity of the circumstances and the prickly figure at the center, Goldman himself, excellently played by Belgian actor Arieh Worthalter, who it gives his character the fervor that apparently made him a leading figure in his day. But Worthalter ambitiously refuses to allow Goldman to be easily sympathetic, leaning on his sometimes contradictory anger. Similarly, while there are timely themes at play involving societal racism and anti-Semitism, especially when dealing with a police force, Kahn deftly avoids bumbling posturing, instead letting the testimony speak for itself.
When we first meet Goldman in the context of the film, he has become something of a folk hero following the publication of a memoir he wrote in prison, “Dark Memoirs of a French-born Polish Jew,” detailing his life as the son of Polish refugees. Although he readily admitted to the robbery charges, he vehemently denied any involvement in the murders. He had an alibi, but his main defense, as depicted on screen, is almost aggravating: he didn’t do it because he didn’t. He refuses to allow his lawyers to offer character witnesses because he believes his own word should suffice.
But before Goldman appears on screen, Kahn opens the action to two of his lawyers, Georges Kiejman (Arthur Harari) and Francis Chouraqui (Jeremy Lewin), both of whom are Jewish. Kiejman has just received a letter Goldman drafted explaining how he was going to fire him, explicitly calling his representative an “armchair Jew,” an insult that implies passivity that speaks to the actuality of the Holocaust. It’s a sequence that exists outside the film’s otherwise claustrophobic world that nevertheless establishes crucial context for Goldman’s anger. Without too much exposition, Kahn shows the anxiety of the world Goldman occupies, where the scars of the past are tender.
From there, Kahn leaps into the actual procedural process, portraying the layers of bystanders. There are Goldman’s acolytes, wearing the beards and clothes of those on the left and chanting his name. Then there are Goldman’s relatives, including his father, a former Resistance fighter, who remains solemn. And finally there are the representatives of law enforcement, challenged by what Goldman represents as a voice of anti-authoritarian resistance. The only thing that serves as a score is the bickering of Goldman’s supporters and detractors.
There’s something inherently funny about the way the French conduct their trials, even in the way jury members can question witnesses. Kahn milks the fast-paced nature of the proceedings, as well as the high-end emotion on display. As each successive witness comes to speak, he also slowly peels away the layers of prejudice that colored Goldman’s indictment, from the ways his black friends were intimidated by police to the stubbornness of cops who chafe at any charge. of racism or misconduct. .
Kahn films the action with the objectivity of a verité documentary filmmaker, and his and Nathalie Hertzberg’s screenplay has the accuracy of a historical document. Their research reportedly involved detailed interviews with Kiejman and Chouraqui, as well as in-depth analyzes of newspaper articles regarding his trials. At the same time, this is not a documentary, but rather an ingenious act of synthesis, combining information from one of Goldman’s previous trials and also drawing information from his book. The effect is a concise, but not simple, look at this man through his legal struggles.
Goldman, it should be noted, was assassinated in 1979 and the events surrounding his death could make up an entirely separate film. Significantly, Kahn chose not to tell a larger story about this figure, whose life was filled with the kind of tragedy and spectacle that seems ripe for film translation. (For example: His mother left him to return to Poland and pursue Communist goals; he fought with guerrillas in Venezuela.) Instead, he uses the trial as a covert character study that nonetheless exposes the evils still plaguing France and the rest of the world .
With another argument, Kahn’s approach might seem dispassionate, but Goldman is such a strangely charming figure that he – and by association, Worthalter – give the film its fiery slant. He is arrogant and self-sabotaging, but also attractive in his cynical idealism. Unlike most courtroom dramas, there are no easy answers here, no moments where the music swells and victory reigns. Goldman is too complicated for that. Instead, Kahn rightfully leaves his audience mired in the questions his story raises about Jewish trauma and corrupt institutions, both today and yesterday.
“The Goldman Case” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where it opened the Directors’ Fortnight section. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.