Curveball

As the titles roll, we see the text “A true story – unfortunately”. Well, up to a point.

Curveball tells the peculiar ten year pre-history of the Weapons of Mass Destruction that George W Bush and Tony Blair claimed were held by Saddam Hussain, but which mysteriously disappeared after they’d bombed Iraq into the Stone Age. Remember the attack that could happen within 45 minutes? People believed that once.

Although the German government officially opposed the war, Curveball highlights their involvement, largely around the Iranian dissident Dar Salim. Salim contacted the German secret services in the 1990s, introducing himself as a scientist who had been working on Iraq’s anthrax programme. He offered to tell all – as long as they give him a German passport.

The film follows Salim and his minder Dr. Arndt Wolf, with whom he develops a sort of friendship, visiting Wolf at his home when he fears that he is being chased by first Iraqi agents, then the CIA. The CIA operation is headed by Leslie, who had a fling with Wolf when they were both based in Iraq. Now she is stationed with a group of lederhosen wearing agents near Oberammergau (don’t try to spell it).

As time passes, Wolf and his bosses realise that Salim is a fraud, prepared to say anything if they’ll give him that passport. But their “knowledge” of Saddam’s weapons programme has given Germany a diplomatic advantage over the US, who have their own reasons for choosing to believe what Salim says. It’s not long before a sketch that Salim made on the back on a napkin has been digitally enhanced and presented by Colin Powell at That United Nations meeting.

Curveball mixes shots of Wolf, Salim and co with archive footage from the run up to the Iraq war, It is seething with righteous anger, finishing with film of the bombing in Baghdad in 2003, and a caption that tells us that between 150,000 and 600,000 Iraqis died in this needless war. It should be essential viewing. And yet, I just couldn’t get on board.

Let’s start with the comedy. It seems that director Johannes Naber has taken Marx’s dictum of history repeating itself, the second time as farce and decided that the real life history that he’s showing was so thoroughly ridiculous that it’s best shown in the form of a slapstick comedy. So, we have plenty of pratfalls and sled races, as a counterpoint to the usual depiction of espionage in James Bond films.

There’s just one problem. Using comedy to ridicule something is much less effective when the comedy just isn’t funny. Now I realise that this may be my problem, and I’m loath to add to the old stereotypes of Germans having no sense of humour (some of my best friends are Germans, and some of these are hilarious). But the “comedy” in Curveball just left me cold.

There is another point here. The unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis wasn’t a funny business. Now it is possible for a film to mix extreme comedy and tragedy, but it requires a lightness of touch that is unfortunately absent here. The comedy here is applied with such broad brushstrokes that it undermines any political point being made.

There is also the questionable decision to show all BND (German Intelligence) offices as having dull brown furniture and wallpaper, as if we’re in a 1970s Stasi drama. Now I think I get the reason – to show the intelligence service as being stuck in the past – but it just distances what is happening from anything that is happening now, and any sense of accurate reporting.

The truth is one of the key subjects of Curveball – the German subtitle is “We make the truth”, following a statement made by Leslie. Truth, or at least the way in which truth is perceived, is largely dependent on whoever controls it’s dissemination. There is an important point here – even if we ignore the latent postmodernism – but it ends up undermining the film’s claim to tell us what really happened. After all, we just paid good money to hear this story. There may be others.

Maybe I just shouldn’t have thought so hard. Maybe I should have just sat back and enjoyed the laughs. It’s just that the laughs were too rare for me to be able to do this. I can understand other people loving this film. It just completely passed me by.

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