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The People vs. Fritz Bauer

THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Lars Kraume

Cast: Burghart Klaußner, Ronald Zehrfeld, Lilith Stangenberg, Jörg Schüttauf, Sebastian Blomberg, Michael Schenk, Rüdiger Klink, Laura Tonke, Götz Schubert, Paulus Manker, Cornelia Gröschel, Tilo Werner, Dani Levy, Robert Atzorn

MPAA Rating: R (for some sexual content)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 8/19/16 (limited); 9/2/16 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 1, 2016

There is something to be said for a biographical film centered on one episode in the subject's life that makes one want to see what happened before and after that period. The People vs. Fritz Bauer feels as if it's starting too late in the life of the eponymous district attorney for the West German state of Hesse, and when the film reaches its conclusion, it also feels as if it's ending too soon. What we do get, though, is a strong film about a man navigating a system that would place legal barriers to prevent a morally just action in order to protect itself.

This chapter in the man's life begins in 1956. Bauer, played by Burghart Klaußner, has had an incident involving a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol. Rumors emerge that the prosecutor attempted suicide. When Georg August Zinn (Götz Schubert), the governor and Bauer's boss, confronts him with that rumor, Bauer responds that he owns a pistol. "If I decide to kill myself," he says, "there won't be any rumors."

Essentially, this is a man who is not only straightforward in expressing his motives but also assertive in ensuring that there is no room for doubt in the mind of anyone who would question them. His current goal is to hunt down any remnants of the Nazi system who had a part in the execution of the Shoah. Bauer is Jewish. He fled from Germany to Denmark after betraying his conscience—by writing an open letter criticizing opposition to the Nazis—in order to earn his freedom from a concentration camp. Now, a decade after the war, he believes he finally can do his part to fight it.

Of primary concern to Bauer is Adolf Eichmann (Michael Schenk), who was the SS officer in charge of the mass relocation of Jews into ghettos, as well as overseeing the transportation of the ghettos' population to the death camps. Eichmann is living in a suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he proudly tells an interviewer of his crimes while regretting that he personally did not do enough to "solve" the "Jewish question." Bauer receives a letter from a man in Buenos Aires who is convinced that his daughter is dating the son of the war criminal.

The simple and righteous answer, of course, is that Eichmann should be extradited back to Germany, charged for his crimes, and put on trial. That's Bauer's position, and he wants a very public trial so that the people of Germany are forced to confront the crimes of the recent past, which are already being forgotten. The powers that be, though, would rather that Eichmann remain outside of Germany. To bring him trial would be to publicize the roles those currently in power had within Nazi Germany. That could put West Germany's role on the international stage into question.

The film, co-written and directed by Lars Kraume, possesses a strictly moral point of view, even as its tone remains emotionally distant from and analytical of the process that Bauer takes to achieve his goal. The screenplay, co-written by Olivier Guez, follows a step-by-step procedure of Bauer's investigation into Eichmann with the help of a younger member of his prosecutorial team named Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), who is one of the few people that Bauer comes to trust.

That trust is vital, because Bauer eventually realizes that he will need foreign aid if he hopes to see Eichmann prosecuted. He approaches Mossad in Israel for help. The move is technically and legally treason.

Kraume and Guez only approach the legal side of Bauer's decision as a means of creating suspense. There is never any doubt on the part of the filmmakers that his actions are wrong on any level beyond the one created by a system that forces his hand.

The purpose here is both to expose that system and to appreciate the machinations of Bauer's plan. The once forthright man shows himself to be an expert at sly deceptions and playing people's own narratives against them. To keep Bauer from making too much noise after a successful television appearance, a member of the Federal Intelligence Service tells him that Eichmann is presently in Kuwait. Bauer knows the truth but doesn't know if they know it. Instead, he publicizes the false intelligence, creating a smokescreen against the FIS and Eichmann.

The film is at its most effective when it simply follows this man on his path toward justice. It's especially bolstered by Klaußner's performance, which suggests decades of pain and a battle against world-weariness beneath the surface of a man who appears to have few secrets. One of the biggest secrets is Bauer's sexuality, which becomes a possible way for the FIS to stop him if it comes to it. That's another connection between him and Angermann, who is married but secretly gay. A subplot involving Angermann's attraction to a nightclub singer (Lilith Stangenberg) replaces the real conversation that these two men should be having but at which, instead, they only hint—that the discriminatory policies of the Nazis still continue, albeit against a group that it is still considered socially acceptable to treat as criminals, simply because of who they are.

The political situation presented here is complex, and it's reassuring to have a guide as clear-eyed as Bauer taking us through it. The film ends, though, when his participation ends, which leaves a series of lingering questions about the impact of the trial that he helps to bring about (not to mention a trial in Germany against other former SS officials that he spearheaded two years later). To its credit, The People vs. Fritz Bauer is less interested in questions than it is in breaking through them to find moral certitude.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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