Movie Review: The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015)
“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” is a solid-enough historical drama, with a meaty, central performance by Burghart Klaussner. It sheds some light on: the capture of Adolf Eichmann; the prevalence of Nazis in prominent roles in postwar West Germany; the politics of the Cold War. It makes Mossad seem slightly ineffectual. We learn—or I learned anyway—about the title character, the Jewish district attorney of Hessen in Frankfurt during the 1950s and ’60s, who was instrumental in bringing about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65.
But it’s too neat. It feels like writer-director Lars Kraume bends history to fit a cleaner, less-interesting narrative.
And what’s with the casting? The role of a male transvestite is played by a woman: Lilith Stangenberg. So certain segments of the audience don’t get squeamish during love scenes? Aren’t we honoring a homosexual hero here?
The question the movie turns on
Bauer is that hero, and for a time his homosexuality, all but repressed, is seen by his enemies as a way to bring him down; but ultimately it may be his zealousness in pursuit of justice.
Early on, via letter from Argentina, Bauer finds out where Adolf Eichmann is hiding, and he wants to extradite him and put him on trial in Germany. He wants to force Germany to confront its past. The problem: Who does he share this information with? “No one, from Bonn to Washington, wants Eichmann on trial,” Bauer tells Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld of “Phoenix”), his one loyal assistant. “My own agency is enemy territory.
So he goes to Israel/Mossad. Two problems: 1) sharing intel with a foreign government is a treasonous offense; and 2) Mossad hears the intel and shrugs. Like Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men,” they want a second source, and they leave that up to Bauer. (He finds it in an interesting place: the HR department at Mercedes-Benz.)
Both friends and enemies accuse Bauer of being obsessed with Eichmann but it’s a shame the movie isn’t similarly obsessed. Instead, we keep meandering into the Angermann subplot: the slow revelation that he’s gay; testing the waters in the transvestite bar; the beginning of something with Victoria (Stangenberg), then being traduced to the authorities. Bauer’s enemies, Paul Gebhardt and Ulrich Kreidler, both ex-SS, strike a deal with Angermann: Give them proof that Bauer is working with Mossad and Angermann’s crime, his career-ending scandal, will go away.
That’s what the movie turns on: this question. Earlier, Bauer told Angermann his own tale of capitulating to power. In 1920, Bauer, only 17, became the youngest district judge in 1920, and by 1933 he and Kurt Schumacher were leaders of the Social Democratic Party; but a May general strike against the Nazis went nowhere and they were put into a concentration camp, where Schumacher remained for the entirety of the war. Bauer got out in 1933. He wrote something nice about the Nazis in the paper, fled to Denmark, then Sweden. His capitulation spared him the Holocaust but it gnawed at him. In the movie he says it’s the great embarrassment of his life.
Angermann avoids that embarrassment by turning himself in. But we don’t see the consequences of that act of courage, just the act, which makes the courage seem easy. It makes you wonder why more people don’t have such courage, and I would argue that, per Frederick in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” that’s the wrong question. The better question is: The few who have it, how do they have it? A good discussion on this topic can be found in Eyal Press’ 2012 book “Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times.” Essentially Press argues that’s it’s often conservatives who believe in the original system who stand up to power, rather than rebels. It’s people who believe in the myth rather than cynics who know the shitty way the world runs.
Losing by winning
Anyway, Mossad gets Eichmann (as we know), Germany refuses to extradite him so he goes on trial in Israel (as we know), and Bauer, fired up again by Angermann’s loyalty and bravery, becomes more determined to put Germany on trial. We hear about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials in an afterword, yet that business seems more interesting than what we’ve just watched—particularly since Bauer wasn’t happy with its outcome. He said the trials supported the “wishful fantasy that there were only a few people with responsibility ... and the rest were merely terrorized, violated hangers-on, compelled to do things completely contrary to their true nature.”
This movie, nominated for five German Film Awards, ends with a fierce determination to exact justice; the reality is messier and more interesting. A movie in which Bauer lost by winning might’ve resonated.