In the opening scenes of The People vs. Fritz Bauer, we see the title character asleep in a tub that’s rapidly overflowing with water. It was an accident, and his valet finds and revives him just in time. Still, the incident causes enough of a scandal that it’s got the German authorities wondering if they could use suicide rumors to discredit his reputation. “I have a pistol,” Bauer says. “If I decide to kill myself, there won’t be any rumors.”
The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015) is a German-language film by director Lars Kraume, based on true events. Twelve years since the end of World War II, the Jewish Bauer (Burghart Klaußner) has returned from exile. He has the task of bringing German war criminals to justice in a country that doesn’t want to confront its history and a government filled with Nazi sympathizers.
There’s plenty of action in the real-life story to drive the drama forward and it is told with shrewd, German efficiency. The film consists mostly of serious white men standing in rooms, talking and sometimes arguing with one another. This isn’t a criticism, per se. A serious German story deserves a serious German film—but it’s worth knowing this ahead of time.
The plot thickens when we learn through rumors and innuendo that Bauer is probably a closeted homosexual with a past criminal record of sexual misconduct. He finds a friend and ally in one of the lawyers in his office, Karl Angermann. Ronald Zehrfeld plays Karl, who looks like a young, handsome version of Brendan Fraser. When Angermann attempts to challenge the harsh sentence of a young man charged with homosexual crimes, Bauer suspects his friend might have similar proclivities.
In a particularly touching scene, Bauer notices Angermann’s fashionable, checkered socks and gets a pair of his own. But if Bauer has a crush, that’s his tough luck. His enemies will use any excuse to discredit and defame him, and in 1950s Germany, an accusation of homosexual tendencies means the end of a career and even imprisonment.
Bauer receives a letter that purports to know the whereabouts of SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, aka, Holocaust war criminal #1. Bauer knows he can’t go through the ordinary German channels to bring the man to justice. And so, he makes the controversial decision to enlist the help of the Israeli secret service Mossad. It’s an act of treason, but what choice does he have, and which virtue is more important?
For Bauer, the quest to try German war criminals in their home country isn’t about retribution, but about forcing Germany to confront its troubled past. If you’re familiar with the history, you’ll have some idea of how the movie turns out, but not entirely. A subplot involving Angermann and an extra-marital affair goes a long way to make this story more salacious and palatable then what it actually is: a series of law proceedings.
The People vs. Fritz Bauer continues at Landmark Seven Gables Theatre (911 NE 50th St).