Film Review: The People vs. Fritz Bauer

Superb, dense, fact-based drama about post-war German-Jewish Nazi hunter/lawyer Fritz Bauer and his little-known efforts behind Israel’s Mossad intelligent unit’s search for Adolf Eichmann.
Specialty Releases

An unlikely comparison comes to mind: Like current hit Jason Bourne, filmmaker Lars Kraume’s The People vs. Fritz Bauer requires attention but for wholly different reasons which illuminate the demarcation line separating mainstream and specialty product and why art-house audiences will embrace the Kraume work.

Unfolding in the late 1950s when Germany, still resistant to confronting its Nazi past, allows many of the guilty to continue in high public and private positions throughout the country, The People vs. Fritz Bauer focuses on the eponymous Bauer (Burghart Klaussner), an elderly Jew and Socialist charged, as the German State of Hesse’s Attorney General, with bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, wherever they may be hiding.

As in Bourne, national intelligence services figure prominently and the film is also awash in sometimes murky details, mystery, suspense and themes of bad behavior inside governments. But while viewer attention to the stampeding Bourne film rewards the eyes and ears of thrill-seekers, Fritz Bauer rewards the intelligence and curiosity of more serious filmgoers. In very different ways, both films provide immense entertainment.

But Fritz Bauer is hardly a mere “Let’s get those Nazi ‘basterds’” adventure yarn. Yes, it boasts a powerful through-line involving Eichmann’s whereabouts and Bauer’s hunt, but there are thickets of characters and places, historic name-dropping, and a gay subplot along the convoluted way.

Bauer is a Jew who returned post-war to his native Germany after World War II exile in Denmark. Now a renowned legal figure in his homeland, he works with a team of underling public prosecutors to identify and bring to trial ex-Nazis, many of whom still wield strong influence.

For Bauer, the task is all the more daunting because Germans, including his rather indifferent team, are not prepared to confront their past and are even often inclined to help the criminals stay hidden in plain sight. Most bothersome is Bauer’s rival Paul Gebhardt (Jörg Schüttauf), a senior operative in the government’s Federal Office of Investigation who sabotages Bauer’s efforts, with the support of another Nazi sympathizer, Ulrich Kreidler (Sebastian Blombert), a senior public prosecutor on Bauer’s team.

But after Bauer gets a tip in a letter to him from an Argentinian that Eichmann is living in Argentina (the writer’s daughter has become engaged to one of Eichmann’s sons), Bauer finds an ally and eventually a friend within his team, young public prosecutor Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld).

Bauer risks accusations of treason by bringing this new information to Israel’s Mossad, but Isser Harel (Tilo Werner), Mossad’s director, is skeptical and requires a second independent source affirming Eichmann’s whereabouts. Bauer eventually comes up with sleazy journalist/informant Friedrich Morlach (Paulus Manker), who might also be an informant to Germany’s intelligence service or even East Germany’s Stasi intelligence unit.

The proverbially and progressively thickening plot is off and running, with a number of other characters who figure, including Georg August Zinn (Götz Schubert), the Minister-President of Hesse who is Bauer’s boss and a fellow Socialist; Victoria (Lilith Stangenberg), a cabaret singer with whom the married Angermann gets involved; Herr Schneider (René Heinersdorff), an ex-Nazi In Bauer’s crosshairs who is now working as a Mercedes Benz executive; Israeli Attorney General Chaim Cohn (Dani Levy), with whom Bauer meets on his second visit to Israel; and SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann (Michael Schenk), also working for Mercedes Benz in Argentina.

Enriched with some archival material, The People vs. Fritz Bauer is also generous with references to relationships between West Germany, the U.S. and Israel at the time and the roles its politicians (Adenauer, Ben-Gurion, et al.) played in Germany’s recovery and Israel’s interests.

The film challenges on other levels. As a fighter for justice, the dour, unpleasant, dyspeptic Bauer, although determined, is not of the warm and fuzzy hero variety. Also, Lilith Stangeberg as Victoria the transgender cabaret singer seems a transgressive choice of casting: This “she” will strike even the most knowing as a real-life she (IMDB sheds no light here). Maybe a petty observation, but surely Germany, of all places, presents a vast trove of more convincing casting possibilities. Other aspects of the gay subplot, although subtle, register credibly.

The film, requiring a lot of attention, is ultimately highly satisfying, which is why many people go to the movies even as other audiences get “Bourne” again.