The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015)

Hero or Traitor?

Frankfurt, Germany, 1957. Jewish Attorney General Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klaußner) has been burning the candle at both ends in his relentless pursuit to bring former Nazis to trial — he’s been receiving death threats, losing sleep, his memory and almost his life after accidentally overdosing on sleeping pills and alcohol.

See, there are Nazi sympathizers within the very system who want Bauer out, amongst them Paul Gebhardt (Jörg Schüttauf) of the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, the overall morale being one that’s scathing, folks ready to forget the country’s chronicle of evil, which barely ceased twelve years before — Gebhardt’s own team of investigators rearing to move onto the next case.

Be that as it may, a new lead on unrepentant Nazi organizer, former S.S. Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann (Michael Schenk) rekindles Bauer’s desire for retribution, particularly after seeing idealist prosecutor Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld) boldly challenge the court. Consequentially, Bauer hatches a secret plan with Angermann to track Eichmann down and bring him to justice, a plot that would utilize the Israeli Secret Service — Mossad. The cost of this scheme, if it were to ever be found out, would be charges of treason and the resulting public disgrace that’d haunt them forever. As Bauer and Angermann attempt to investigate in secret, Bauer’s enemies conspire to reveal the pair, both men forced to consider the true value of their beliefs.

'Studies have shown that riding a bicycle makes you more awesome than the people who don't.'
‘Studies have shown that riding a bicycle makes you more awesome than the people who don’t.’

As you may’ve gathered by the plot synopsis, there is a great layering of politics within the true story of The People vs. Fritz Bauer. There are the issues of war crimes within the very nation that instigated it, tension between Germany’s interests and Israel’s, the secret society of Nazi advocates and the citizens themselves, eager to forget and move on from the horrors of war. With so much going on, I must admit, it made my head spin.

Those familiar with their post-war annals are likely to find it far easier to follow than I did, which is a bit of a shame, considering that this is a story worth grasping, especially if you’re like me and weren’t previously aware of the incident. You see, the real-life Fritz Bauer and his involvement in the capturing of Adolf Eichmann was revealed some ten years after his death, in 1968 — during his life he was seen as a disreputable figure, often misunderstood and his victories unappreciated.

It’s clear that co-writer and director Lars Kraume, The Coming Days (2010), certainly appreciates Bauer’s grind, his film working as a celebration of ethics and the fearlessness required to realize them — very strong ideas indeed. The problem, however, lies in the flick’s lack of clarity in the political haze that permeates the tense pursuit, this slowing the story down when it should have the heartbeat of a desperate hunt. We believe in what Bauer and Angermann are doing, but are lost as to why it’s so controversial to others (of that time period).

The literal red light district
The literal red light district

It’s not that filmmaker Kraume doesn’t attempt to explain the antagonistic environment; it’s just that he does so in a manner that isn’t lucid. A great example of this is in Bauer’s key plan to contact the Mossad — particularly why (outside of the Nazi sympathizers) is Germany against this? Why won’t Mossad work in co-operation with the German government for mutual benefit? Whatever the answers may be, they are not tangible in this film, creating a gap between those who require more knowledge and those already familiar with this intriguing part of the past. And this is a huge loss.

I do believe that one of the great challenges of any storyteller is to render details in a way that can be understood by most (I say ‘most,’ because well, you can’t reach everybody) and this is compounded when dealing with history. This is where I feel Lars Kraume and debuting co-writer Olivier Guez have faltered. Much like the characters themselves, the narrative struggles to find its footing till the mid-section, the personal stakes becoming a bit more focused there, but it’s otherwise clear that the movie is just too dense to be fully understood (and grasped) on initial viewing.

Lead Burghart Klaußner, Bridge of Spies (2015), remains committed to his unsung hero, delivering a worthy performance whilst making the titular Bauer accessible, even as he acts unreasonably stubborn towards his ally Angermann. Speaking of Angermann, he’s actually an invention of the screenwriters, actor Ronald Zehrfeld, The King’s Surrender (2014), struggling to anchor the character with the same realism as Klaußner does his. Lastly, in his all-too-brief appearances, Michael Schenk, Measuring the World (2012), chills as Adolf Eichmann.

'Have you seen this man?'
‘Have you seen this man?’

While this is an important story to tell, perhaps there’s just too much to explain in a single feature. That being said, a miniseries could’ve been the way to go, delving into the sordid histories of the Nazi figures, the commitment of the unhonored heroes hunting them down and the nation that didn’t seem to wholly support them. As it stands, The People vs. Fritz Bauer should work with history buffs, but for everyone else, it’s just too inaccessible and possibly even slow burning for newcomers.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

The People vs. Fritz Bauer is released through JIFF Distribution