Reviewed by Lauren Humphries-Brooks
Like its central character, The People vs. Fritz Bauer is a quiet, understated film that gives little away, yet summons up a sense of controlled power and passion seething just beneath the surface. Taking place in a rather murky period of German history during the mid-1950s, it tells the story of Dr. Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klaußner), the District Attorney of Hessen, in Frankfurt, whose works to hunt down Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice. The film largely focuses on Bauer’s pursuit of SS lieutenant colonel Adolf Eichmann (Michael Schenk), one of the major orchestrators of the Holocaust, and the interference of the German government itself to stymy Bauer’s attempts to put Eichmann on trial in Germany. Many in the post-war government wish to forget those Nazi leaders still alive and abroad, especially as some contemporary state officials once held posts in the Third Reich. Frustrated and paranoid, Bauer and his deputy Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld) discover information that Eichmann is living in Argentina, and Bauer goes to Mossad, Israel’s National Intelligence Agency, effectively committing treason against Germany in order to bring Eichmann to justice.
The People vs. Fritz Bauer brings a more unpalatable and, to American eyes at least, lesser-known vision of post-war Germany to the screen. This is a Germany unwilling to come to terms with its very recent past especially in the form of a man who, in many ways, represents those whom the Nazi were trying to eliminate. Bauer was a former Democratic Socialist, a Jew, and a closeted homosexual. At odds with his own country’s investigative agencies, he insists that Eichmann be brought to trial in Germany because he wants to confront Germans with their past, for them to hear and to condemn the man that Eichmann is and the men, former Nazis, who still walk among them.
Burghart Klaußner’s performance as Bauer, an asthmatic who constantly smokes cigars is the quiet, dogged center of the film. His Bauer is acerbic to his underlings, unwilling to trust any of them, seeing challenges and opponents at every turn. An indicative scene between Bauer and Angermann, the young German prosecutor who becomes his closest confidante, highlights the sense of a nation of people that must keep their own desires and even personalities strictly controlled. You never know who might be against you.
If The People vs. Fritz Bauer fails anywhere, it is in its occasionally meandering subplots, including one involving Angermann’s defense of a young man placed on trial for homosexuality and mutual masturbation. While the subplot’s thematic purpose becomes clear during the final quarter of the film, it nonetheless distracts from Bauer’s quest to force Germany to come to terms with its past. It fills time better occupied with a more thorough examination of Bauer’s reasons for seeking the help of Mossad.
We’re accustomed to looking at the East/West divide of post-war Germany, Communism superseding Nazism as the main threat to democracy and human rights. I myself am accustomed to the Ameri-centric views that once Hitler was defeated, Nazism ceased to be a threat and Germany’s reconstruction became more about rebuilding a wounded nation than in punishing guilt and bringing Germany to grips with its past. The People vs. Fritz Bauer forces us to look closer at the post-war years, to grapple with the presence of reactionary elements in Germany and the need for the people to face their collective past before the nation can move on and really, truly begin to heal.
Lauren Humphries-Brooks: A writer and editor with two Master’s degrees in Creative Writing (University of Edinburgh) and Cinema Studies (NYU). Currently freelances as copy and content editor for Cobblestone Press and previously worked as an ESOL Writing Instructor for Hamilton College. She maintains her own website and writes freelance for sites including We Got This Covered, The News Hub, and Man I Love Films. (Twitter handle @)