It’s called the trial of the century. Pierre Goldman, a Jewish man of Polish origin, was previously convicted of an armed robbery that ended in a double murder. The fiercely intelligent Goldman wrote a book proclaiming his innocence and accused the police of an anti-Semitic conspiracy against him. After public opinion galvanises around him, a new trial is announced and this time, all of France is watching.
Stories of wrongful convictions usually call for a victim who is vulnerable and/or morally inscrutable, so as to maximise both the injustice of their situation and audience sympathy for them. But Goldman is, to put it lightly, a difficult character. Volatile and aggressive, he proudly admits to being a criminal, a thief, and an armed revolutionary. He talks of his past crimes with a warped sense of pride and bullishly cuts down any who oppose his version of events. But he denies the two murders, citing his “moral principles”.
After everything we’ve learned about him, Pierre Goldman should be nobody’s idea of a hero. But when he enters the courtroom, the crowd explodes in an outpouring of support. That’s when we realise that this trial is about much more than one man’s innocence.
In a courtroom, facts and evidence are used to try and find the objective reality of an event. But as witnesses are cross-examined, it becomes clear that finding any kind of objective truth in Goldman’s case will be close to impossible. Even if someone doesn’t seem to be outright lying, their testimonies betray a lingering racism, an anti-Semitism so pervasive that it’s inhaled like air. The more people testify against him, the more Goldman’s insistence of a police conspiracy against him becomes more plausible.
The Goldman Case is shot in a documentary style, convincingly recreating the look and feel of a 1970’s televised courtroom. Its visual style is defined not by what it adds but by what it takes away. There is no music, no cinematic flourish to the camerawork, no showy performances by actors swinging for the fences. That’s not to say there’s no emotion involved; this is an emotive issue. Fiery outbursts come not just from the belligerent Goldman himself but from the prosecutors, defence lawyers, witnesses, judges, even those in the public gallery. Everyone is angry, everyone fights for their own version of the truth. Here we have an entire society squeezed into a courtroom.
Goldman decries the court’s focus on his past and his character, but there is something undeniably fascinating about him. We become the fly on the courtroom wall, our opinion of Goldman metamorphosing with each new piece of information revealed, weighing up all the biases, the agendas and the vested interests at play, trying to reach something close to the truth.
When a period film wants to be relevant to modern audiences, the usual approach is to borrow the trappings of contemporary films, resulting in a weird mishmash of old setting and new sensibilities. The Goldman Case succeeds by doing the opposite, authentically immersing us in this 1970s courtroom to the extent that it doesn’t feel as if we’ve been transported back 50 years. Can we say that something like this would never happen today? Has that much really changed?