In director Christoph Hochhäusler’s thriller The Lies of the Victors, two investigative journalists try to unravel a conspiracy at the heart of Germany’s military-industrial complex. Compared to Hochhäusler’s previous films, The Lies of the Victors is much more accessible without sacrificing its ideological engagement; it plays with genre conventions to provide a rigorous examination of how malleable truth is to the forces of capitalism.
Fabian Groys (Florian David Fitz) is a talented, if somewhat wild, reporter researching back channels between the army and companies dealing with toxic chemicals. When he’s assigned an ambitious intern, Nadja (Lilith Stangenberg), he tries to distract her by having her investigate a tabloid story about a veteran who threw himself into the lion’s cage at the zoo. However, Nadja proves capable and finds intriguing links between the veteran and Fabian’s story and they collaborate on what they think is a hard-hitting article, which eventually earns them plaudits and the cover of their magazine. It isn’t until after the article’s publication that Fabian suspects what Hochhäusler has shown the audience all along, that Fabian and Nadja were subtly manipulated by lobbyists connected to the toxic waste companies, who gave them some information while hiding them from greater truths.
In many ways it might seem that with this film Hochhäusler is trying to appeal to more of a mass audience, with non-diegetic music cues, recognizable character types like crusading journalists, and more incidental human elements, such as witty banter and a sexual tension between the two leads. Yet the director deploys these elements tactically; a scene of Nadja lowering her guard and Fabian flirting with her is interrupted by shots from the perspective of a spying camera, as in another scene their data is hacked while they sleep, juxtaposing computer activities with sleeping bodies - contrasting the coldly dispassionate machinations of capital with human frailties like sleep or love.
In using more Hollywood devices to direct the audience’s experience, the director might be moving away from the formalist concerns of ‘the Berlin School’ of films that he helped develop as a critic and filmmaker (to use just one example, single scenes of this new film contain more camera movement than the entirety of his 2003 film In this Very Moment). But this strategy also might be an elaborate misdirection; Hochhäusler uses the tropes we expect from this sort of conspiracy movie, right up to the triumphant publishing of the article. Only in The Lies of the Victors, this moment occurs only two thirds through the film, the rest of which is dedicated to showing just how Fabian and Nadja were duped, and the market forces (Nadja gets a new job and the magazine doesn’t want to lose sales through a retraction, etc.) that align to prevent Fabian from revealing the real conspiracy.
Usually the phrase “the lies of the victors” is thought of on the scale of nations, but this film shows how the state and corporations can rewrite the minute details of individual lives to suit their ends- one scene shows a grieving widow lamenting that her husband’s corpse was exhumed and burned without her consent, to destroy the evidence of poisons in his body.
A very spatially attuned director, Hochhäusler makes the viewer acutely aware of Berlin in general and the specific physical structures of each scene, letting the camera lingeringly explore a hanger or spin around a car – the camera sometimes seems more interested in setting than characters. But more than physical structures, or individuals, Hochhäusler seems interested in large-scale economic structures and how vulnerable our system makes us to the deceptions of states and major corporations. With a devastating tragic irony, The Lies of the Victors shows how reporters with the best of intentions can end up the pawns of the very frauds they are trying to unmask, and the final irony, as the title implies, is that these lies, unchecked, will transmute into historical fact.