Fritz Bauer isn’t exactly a household name in the United States–nor, I suspect, in Germany, his birthplace. And yet it was Bauer, a Jew who fled Germany before the Holocaust and returned after World War II, who tracked down Adolf Eichmann, the initiator and engineer of the “final solution”–the mass deportation and murder of six million Jews from Germany and its occupied territories.
Lars Kraume’s “The People vs. Friz Bauer,” though mis-titled (there never was a trial of Bauer) and at times confusing, is an important and engrossing film about Bauer’s often frustrating attempts to locate the arch-criminal who finally met justice in Jerusalem.
It’s 1957 in Frankfurt am Main, and the German people are eager to forget the past and not interested confronting the criminals who stained it. Chancellor Adenauer wants to “draw a line” beneath the past; ordinary Germans, says Bauer (Burghart Klaussner), Attorney General of the state of Hesse, are interested only in getting a “nice house” and a “nice car.” His efforts to bring the criminals to justice are ignored, in part because many of them are still in government positions.
Also frustrating Bauer’s efforts is the fact that it’s become known that, while in exile in Denmark, he sometimes sought out male prostitutes. “The Jew is queer!” His opponents rejoice and consider framing him, as, during the Nazi regime, homosexuality was declared a crime and remains one on the books.
Everything changes for Bauer when he receives a letter from a man in Argentina informing him that Eichmann is living there. Bauer resolves to inform the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, even though, as he’s told, that would be treason. The Mossad’s chief, Isser Harel (Tilo Werner) wants more evidence; how Bauer obtains that forms another important plot turn. (For Harel’s account of the 1960 capture of Eichmann, read his book, “The House on Garibaldi Street,” published in 1975.)
Almost everything in the film is based on historical fact except for the character of Bauer’s assistant and ally Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), who is an invention. I can see why director Kraume and screenwriters Kraume and Olivier Guez found his subplot dramatically useful, but I also found it distracting. The main plot has sufficient drama all by itself.
Burghart Klaussner (“Bridge of Spies,” “The White Ribbon”) gives a fully believable performance as Bauer. Rumpled, grouchy, always wreathed in cigarette or cigar smoke, he’s a hero without heroics, a survivor who want justice but not revenge: his goal is to educate the current generation of Germans and change their mindset. The remaining performances are equally good, and production values are high.