What happens when a prosecutor tracks down one of the most evil criminals of the century, only to find that politics and corruption prevent him from issuing an arrest warrant? This is the true story of the hunt for the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann — not from the POV of the Israeli agents that pounced on him in Argentina, but a German prosecutor hemmed in on all sides by Nazi sympathizers in his own government bureaucracy.
The People vs. Fritz Bauer
Cohen Media Group
2015 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 105 min. / Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer / Street Date January 10, 2017 / 30.99
Starring Burghardt Klaußner, Ronald Zehrfeld, Michael Schenck, Cornelia Goöscher, Lilith Stangenberg.
Cinematography Jens Harant
Film Editor Barbara Gies
Original Music Christopher M. Kaiser, Julian Maas
Written by Lars Kraume, Olivier Guez
Produced by Thomas Kufus
Directed by Lars Kraume
As a movie reviewer I’m attracted to certain subjects. I’ve written up several movies made over the years about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich — Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Hitler’s Madman (1943), Operation Daybreak (1975) — and am about to catch up with a brand new one, Anthropoid. It’s fascinating to see the historical facts change across different interpretations — the first Fritz Lang version is a complete fabrication, to serve wartime propaganda and morale purposes.
There is also a series of movies about the arrest and kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann, which happened in Argentina in 1961. The fascinating episode sheds light on the political fallout of WW2, mainly that America allowed and even encouraged ex- Nazis, even SS officers, to help rebuild West Germany. With the government and legal system staffed with Nazi sympathizers, little effort was made to bring war criminals to trial, and only the worst had to flee to places like South America. The low budget Operation Eichmann is a choppy Eichmann biography starring Werner Klemperer. The House on Garibaldi Street (1979) is a full-on docudrama of the capture told from the Israeli point of view, and sticks closely to the facts. The Last of the Unjust (2013) is a long-form (four hours) interview docu that covers Eichmann’s involvement with concentration camps. And Hannah Arendt (2013) is about the controversial academic who attended the Eichmann trial and wrote a controversial report that coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil.’
For tangential background, there is also the superior movie Nowhere in Africa, from 2001. In it a Jewish German attorney who barely escaped with his family to Kenya in 1938 survives the war in an English detention camp. After the Allied victory, the attorney is determined to go back to Germany and resume his legal role to rebuild his country on non-Nazi lines. That sounds easy enough – but no.
The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015) is about a great man with much the same story as the attorney in Nowhere in Africa. The brilliant lawyer Fritz Bauer read the signs early and took off for Denmark in 1935, relocating to Sweden in 1943. He returned to Germany with the exact same intention — to strip the books of Nazi laws and to prosecute as many war criminals as he can find.
We find Fritz Bauer (Burghardt Klaußner) in 1960, a frustrated man. He heads an entire group of attorneys tasked with exposing ex-Nazis and bringing them to trial, but the effort has become a joke. High-ranking West German government officials are ex-Nazi bureaucrats, and every civil office is ‘covered’ by ex-Nazis, informing the unofficial Nazi grapevine of any new legal developments. They look out for their own and maintain a lifeline to those forced to live abroad. They watch Bauer and his office like a hawk, always looking for ways to discredit him. Bauer’s reputation is so solid that even some homosexual incidents years ago have not loosened his position — the government likes to be able to say that they have put a respected Jewish prosecutor on the job. But Bauer’s underlings repeatedly report ‘no progress’ on their various investigations. When Frtiz accidentally overdoses on his sleeping pills at home, various bureaucrats hope that they can make it into a suicide scandal, to get rid of him.
A German Jew now living in Argentina contacts Fritz Bauer independently. The man claims that his daughter is dating a boy, who brags that his father was a high-ranking Nazi. The assumption is that it must be Adolf Eichmann, one of the most-wanted war criminals on the books. But Fritz is stymied as to what he can do about it. Putting the news through channels will merely result in Eichmann being tipped off and escaping — Bauer’s own staff will see to that. Instead, he risks a charge of treason to take his information to another country, to the spy agency Mossad in Israel. To his dismay, the Israelis discount Bauer’s information and ask him to get confirmation.
Bauer finds a trustworthy associate in Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld of Barbara (2012) and Phoenix). Karl suggests hiring a mercenary private detective who can confirm the identity of the mystery man in Argentina, as he deals with expatriate German communities in South America.
The irony is that Bauer and Angermann must behave like criminals, if any Nazis are to be brought to justice. Because the Germans sell them guns, the Israelis don’t complain that Germany is harboring war criminals. Stepping out of line to talk to Mossad is simple treason. The detective Angermann hires is a risk as well — he could sell what he knows to the Nazi insiders, which would allow Eichmann to flee.
Co-writer-director Lars Kraume’s movie sketches Bauer and Angermann’s personal lives as well. Bauer has long been separated from his wife, presumably over the homosexual affair in his past. The Nazis made being homosexual a prison offense, a law that the new democratic government has retained. The Angermann character is fictional, included to provide a racy subplot but also to point up the gay-injustice theme. Karl Angermann is a closeted gay unhappy with his hausfrau of a spouse (Cornelia Gröschel), who thinks only of things like new kitchen appliances. On a TV program, Fritz Bauer calls for Germany to reexamine its recent past, a notion that most West Germans coldly reject — Karl’s own father-in-law calls it ‘rubbish’ and leaves the room.
Some reviewers judge the Karl Angermann subplot a commercial detour – it is the only fabricated part of the story. Karl is attracted to Victoria (Lilith Stangenberg), a chanteuse in a gay nightclub, and begins a flirtation that will threaten everything. Being a closeted Nazi is the norm, but being outed as gay is a ticket to oblivion. Since the only two righteous West Berliners in sight are both gat, the movie almost implies that gays are by definition humanists that fall on the good side of big social issues. That would be a big mistake.
It’s good that The People vs. Fritz Bauer doesn’t clog up the history pipes by having Fritz and Karl get involved in skullduggery, chases, or spy shootouts. Nothing of the kind occurs. Fritz’s bureaucratic foes tack him to Paris, where they learn that he’s traveling to Israel. That’s bad enough.
The show gives us only a cursory glimpse at events in Buenos Aires, where Adolf Eichmann (Michael Schenck) proudly dictates his vile memoirs into a tape recorder. Living under an assumed identity, he reports to work daily at a Mercedes Benz factory. The filmmakers show Eichmann’s son Klaus bicycling with his girlfriend, Sylvia Hermann (Lavinia Kiessler), the one whose father has contacted Baur about nailing Eichmann. The actual capture is dramatized, but not the teenage relationship, which is a big missed opportunity. In real life, Sylvia Hermann pulled off a terrific Nancy Drew investigation for her father. She talked young Klaus into taking her to his house, something Adolf had forbidden. Left alone, Sylvia met a man who identified himself as the boy’s uncle. But when Klaus returned, he called the man ‘father.’ Bingo. Playing out like an absurd sitcom, this revelation is a genuine ‘too bizarre to be true’ moment of history.
Real Israeli personages are depicted, such as Zvi Aharoni (Matthias Weidenhöfer), the Mossad commander who snatched Eichmann right off a street in Buenos Aires and spirited him back to Israel. All of these scenes convey a sense of genuine Realpolitik — the Israelis don’t act out of emotionalism. They see nothing wrong with flat-out lying to Fritz Bauer, when they promise him that Eichmann will be made available for extradition to Germany. Bauer has to play the same games back home, when he tells his superiors that he thinks Eichmann is in Kuwait, and pretends that he’s not in contact with Israel.
The invented Karl Angermann helps The People vs. Fritz Bauer confect an eventful finish. Inspired by Karl’s actions, Fritz decides not to retire, but goes on with his work, which results the next year in the opening of his official investigations into Auschwitz. At least not every Nazi war criminal got away.
As seems to be the norm with modern German pictures, the unfamiliar faces are refreshing to watch. Burghardt Klaußner is marvelous as Fritz Bauer, with his combed back hive of white hair. Ronald Zehrfeld is a star in Germany, and comes off as powerful and sensitive — he looks a little bit like Brendan Fraser, with a harder edge. Several of the supporting players subsequently showed up in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. The show has a great look, and we love seeing those re-created streets and vintage cars.
The Cohen Media Group’s Blu-ray of The People vs. Fritz Bauer is a beautiful encoding of Lars Kraume’s absorbing true-life story. Color is excellent, and there’s a lot of flavor in the West German government offices, most of which are newly constructed. Be prepared for a tall stack of trailers up front.
Cohen has been presenting a nice mix of new films and stunning restorations of older pictures that have dropped off the radar: Hangmen Also Die!, The Damned, The Thief of Bagdad, Jamaica Inn. The quality of Cohen’s discs is so consistently good that I eagerly await new announcements.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The People vs. Fritz Bauer
Supplements: Trailer, making-of featurette, 5 deleted scenes
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 1, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson