“THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER”— A Historical Thriller

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“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” (“Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer”)

A Historical Thriller

Amos Lassen

.Burghart Klaussner, acclaimed German actor, starsin this riveting historical thriller that chronicles the tremendous efforts of German district attorney Fritz Bauer to bring Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann to justice.

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Bauer wonderfully encapsulates the conflicted character of postwar Germany as the Attorney General who was instrumental in bringing the elusive Adolph Eichmann to trial in Israel. The film is both a portrait of this complex man and a historical thriller about the tremendous risks undertaken in order to apprehend Eichmann, the chief engineer of the Nazis’ Final Solution.

The setting is the late 1950s when Germany has grown increasingly apathetic about confronting the horrors of its recent past. Nevertheless, Fritz Bauer (Klaussner) tirelessly devotes his energies to bringing the Third Reich to justice. One day Bauer receives a letter from Argentina that was written by a man who is certain that his daughter is dating the son of Adolph Eichmann. The promising lead excites Bauer but he is mistrustful of Germany’s corrupt judiciary system where Nazis still lurk. Bauer goes to Jerusalem to seek an alliance with the Mossad, the Israeli secret service. To do so is treason but he knows that committing treason is the only way Bauer can serve his country.

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We are taken back to a time when much of the world was eager to forget the atrocities of the Second World War even though many of the perpetrators remained at large. Yet this is also a film about the world of today, where justice continues to be undermined by economic interests.

Though relatively conservative in its approach, Lars Krause’s teleplay-style treatment of a still-touchy subject has the nerve to name names and it implicates everyone from former chancellor Konrad Adenauer to Mercedes-Benz. Kraume doesn’t pull punches or shy away from how Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, used Kraume’s homosexuality to muzzle him.

Bauer is a brilliant man who must make himself seem as non-threatening as possible in order to accomplish his political goals. He is a Jewish lawyer who was himself briefly interned in a German concentration camp, he has made it his life’s work to bring Nazism’s worst offenders to trail in German courts. In the opening scene, we see the elderly lawman passed out in his bath at home — an incident his political rivals try to misconstrue as a suicide attempt in hopes that it might force him into retirement. But Bauer isn’t so easily dissuaded and says that if he does commit suicide, he will let everyone know and that there will not be rumors.

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Bauer is a short, intense little man with another ten years to go before his retirement. Today he is best remembered today for the leading role he played in the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. In 1957, he hoped Adolf Eichmann might be the first and juiciest former SS officer to stand trial, but as we see here, his crusade pitted him against virtually every entity in the country, from right-wing intelligence agencies to the chancellery itself. Notice the film’s title— it suggests that Bauer, who would go on to prosecute some of Nazism’s worst offenders, was himself being tried in the court of public opinion.

Twice, the film shows Bauer (both the real figure and Klaussner in character) appearing on television to implore Germany’s young people to assert their own identity and “confront Germany’s whole history”. What he means by this is to look past the whitewashed version their own political leaders were feeding them. To have said more at that time could have been treason— the very charge that Bauer was already risking when he went around his superiors’ backs and arranged for Mossad to do his dirty work by giving the Israeli intelligence agency the information they needed to find and arrest Eichmann (who was hiding in Argentina) with the understanding that he might be able to extradite him.

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We see how uncooperative the BND and other entities were in trying to derail Bauer’s efforts. Both Interpol and German intelligence claimed they were “not responsible for political crimes,” but according to the dramatic license Kraume and co-writer Olivier Guez allow themselves here, agents of those groups were actively trying to sabotage his investigation. In a Danish police record in which Bauer was arrested among male prostitutes, the screenplay invents a closeted state attorney named Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), whom Bauer invites into his inner circle and entrusts as his lone confidant.

The film aims to show how the punishingly homophobic Paragraph 175, which sentenced men to harsh prison sentences for any gay behavior, was itself an example of Nazi policy still being practiced in German law, very much like the many politicos who’d shed their swastikas and went right back to work. The recently married Karl, who’s unusually careless in his dealings with a cross-dressing nightclub singer (Lilith Stangenberg), makes a too-easy target, though the blackmail and melodrama that ensues supplies the film its most emotional dimension.

While Bauer was tasked with locating ex-SS officers now in hiding, it proved easier for him to locate Nazi war criminals than to convince his government to act on his information. This is a brilliant film that you do not want to miss.

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