Shoah film Statement says little

“The Statement,” which uses the Holocaust as a collar-grabbing starting point, presents itself as a thriller of uncommon import and conscience. Its intentions notwithstanding, this routine, punchless movie musters neither moral nor historical power.

Norman Jewison’s French-set, English-language film illustrates the pitfall of drawing on horrific real events to give weight to an imagined story: Any slip in casting or credibility reduces history — and the nasty truth — to cheap drama and inconsequentiality.

“The Statement,” adapted by screenwriter Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist”) from Brian Moore’s novel, opens Friday, Jan. 16 at Bay Area theaters.

Relying largely on scenes of labored exposition mixed with a few action sequences, “The Statement” follows the net closing on French war criminal Pierre Brossard (Michael Caine) in 1992, half a century after his murderous acts.

Brossard, a devout Catholic, is being pursued simultaneously by two quite different entities — Jewish assassins seeking revenge (the film’s title refers to the document describing his crime, which they plan to leave on Brossard’s body) and a French judge who wants him arrested and given a public trial.

Caine plays Brossard as a frightened, desperate yet cagey senior citizen who earns our sympathy as, huffing and puffing, he dodges one close call after another. Dangerous when cornered, his only resources are his supersensitive antennae and a network of abbeys that afford him a night’s shelter.

Brossard is certainly deserving of punishment; as a Vichy policeman, he committed a crime — helping the Nazis execute seven French Jews in 1943 — that is almost matched by its cover-up.

In the decades following the war, this comparatively minor-league scoundrel received money and protection from right-wing priests and friends in government.

Judge Anne Marie Livi (Tilda Swinton) and her army aide Roux (Jeremy Northam), trying to track down Brossard, figure out that the men of the cloth helped him because they shared a malevolent ideology. Other men, however, had managed to bury their wartime treachery on the way to successful public careers, and their payments to Brossard were, in essence, hush money.

Now, his arrest and trial would result in their exposure. So it is they, and not Jewish gunmen, who want Brossard dead.

The character of Brossard is inspired by Paul Touvier, a small-time French collaborator who was shielded for years by both government and church officials. Thanks to the relentless efforts of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, Touvier was arrested in 1989, convicted for his role in the murder of seven Jews and given a life sentence.

Touvier’s trial, like Marcel Ophul’s revelatory 1970 documentary about French collaboration with the Nazis, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” forced the French to publicly confront the truth about their behavior during and after the war.

For all the subterfuge, betrayals, threats and ratcheting tension, those kinds of stakes are nowhere in evidence in “The Statement.” A title card pays homage to the 77,000 French Jews murdered during the Vichy period, but their memories are poorly served by this tepid movie.

Even if one chooses to view “The Statement” merely as entertainment, with little regard for its historical basis, disappointment awaits. Despite the pedigrees of the talents involved, this is a long-winded and clunky film that pales next to genuinely compelling political thrillers such as “The Day of the Jackal” and “Three Days of the Condor.”

To be sure, “The Statement” doesn’t exploit the Shoah for tawdry effect. Nor, unfortunately, does it provoke gut-wrenching revulsion at perpetrators getting away with murder.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.