The title character, Fritz Bauer, spent a significant portion of his legal career as a prosecutor in the West German government, attempting to apprehend, bring to trial, and expose wanted Nazi war criminals. In the 1930s, Bauer, who was Jewish, was sent to a concentration camp. Managing to gain freedom from the camp, Bauer spent the remainder of World War II living abroad in Denmark and Sweden. He returned to his native Germany toward the latter part of the 1940s. “The People vs. Fritz Bauer” dramatizes a portion of Bauer’s legal career that was not made known to the public until a decade after his death on July 1, 1968. To paraphrase Bauer: He was not seeking revenge for the atrocities committed against the Jewish people, and others, during the Holocaust, although he did want to mete out justice. Instead, Bauer’s primary reason for dedicating his life’s work to the pursuit of bringing Nazi’s to justice, was to ensure a better future for Germany. He especially wanted the future of the youth of Germany to be one where they embraced a positive identity that they could take pride in. Bauer felt, however, that such an ideal could only be achieved if the past was spoken about and dealt with.
The film begins in Frankfurt, Germany in 1957. Bauer, in a role completely embodied by Burghart Klaussner (Good Bye, Lenin), having drank alcohol, and taken one too many sleeping pills, is discovered by his chauffeur, passed out in his bathtub. The incident leads those former Nazis, who are looking to remove Bauer from a position of power, to speculate that the he attempted to commit suicide. Bauer, knowing full well, that the police have searched his apartment, responds that if he wanted to kill himself, he would have used his pistol. Determined to keep moving forward with his agenda of brining wanted Nazi’s to justice, Bauer is not thwarted by the incident.
Bauer was familiar with the speculation that Martin Bormann who, during the Third Reich, was the head of the Party Chancellery, as well as the private secretary to Adolph Hitler, had not died, as stated, fleeing from the Russian’s in the streets of Berlin, but was living somewhere in South America. Bauer also knew, for a fact, that the infamous, Dr. Josef Mengele, also known by his moniker ‘The Angel of Death,’ because of his deadly medical experiments, and the role he played in selecting untold numbers of people for the gas chambers upon their arrival in Auschwitz, was hiding in Argentina. While the capture of either would be a crowning achievement for Bauer, early on in the film, he is tipped off as to the exact whereabouts of one of the architects of the ‘Final Solution,’ SS Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann. The film occasionally contrasts between Bauer’s pursuit of justice in West Germany, and the life the vile Eichmann, a role acted by Michael Schenk, is leading in Argentina, including an interview he gives to a pro-Nazi journalist, where he speaks about being disappointed in himself, that more Jews weren’t murdered.
Ironically, it is not hatred on the part of a camp survivor or family member that had lost a loved one during the war that brings the location of Eichmann to Bauer’s attention, but love. Bauer receives a letter from the father of a German family, Lothar Hermann (Christopher Buchholz) living abroad in Argentina. The Hermann’s daughter (Lavinia Kiessler) has fallen in love with one of Eichmann’s sons. At first, the information can be construed as a gift, and while Bauer is happy to receive a solid lead, it also presents him with a difficult conundrum. If Bauer takes it to his superior, Georg August Zinn (Götz Schubert), it is highly probable that someone will tip Eichmann off and he will be long gone, living under a new alias, before the authorities from Interpol arrive to apprehend him. If, as he considers, he takes the information to the Mossad (The national intelligence agency of Israel), and it is discovered he bypassed proper government channels than he could be tried for treason.
At great personal peril to himself, Bauer meets with the Mossad, and presents them with the letter. While they are grateful that he is willing to help bring a unrepentant, murderer to justice, they nonetheless, opt to pass on the information. Bauer is told that Israel, at that moment in time, has to concentrate all of its efforts on defending itself from its enemies, who are intent on obliterating it. Furthermore, while information on wanted Nazi war criminals is highly appreciated, Bauer is informed that the Mossad has received numerous reports as to Eichmann’s exact location, and one source, is just not enough for them to invest their time and manpower. In order to move forward, Bauer would have to present them with a second confirmed source verifying Eichmann’s location.
The cunning, cantankerous, heavy-smoker, Bauer, who is full of steadfast zeal, is not dissuaded by what he is told. When he returns to Germany to seek out a second confirmed source, in addition to the death threats he has received, he is presented with another daunting impediment. Paragraph 175, a law which went into effect on May 15, 1871, and was revised by the Nazi’s in 1935, punished any man who engaged in sexual acts with another man. Punishments included a prison term of upwards of ten years in a penitentiary, and a loss of civil rights. The law, which was still on the books in 1957, and would remain so until 1994, presents a problem for Bauer. Paul Gebhardt (Jörg Schüttauf) of the West German, Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, has been furnished with a police report from Denmark which lists Bauer as having visited male prostitutes while living there. Former Nazi’s currently working in the German government, seeking to do Bauer harm, and end his quest to bring Eichmann to justice, have to merely make sure the report finds its way into the appropriate hands. Bauer, a man who seemingly has no friends, only work colleagues, is able to trust very few people. He enlists the help of one of his junior state attorneys, the newly married, Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), who has some secrets of his own pertaining to lounge singer, Victoria (Lilith Stangenberg). Furthermore, Angermann is not fully sold on betraying his government, in order to help a foreign intelligence agency. Will Angermann’s assistance be the help Bauer needs or will it lead to his ultimate downfall? (As an aside: Although a great deal of the film is historically accurate, the Angermann character is fictional).
Lars Kraume (Guten Morgen, Herr Grothe), directed “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” and co-wrote the screenplay for the film with Olivier Guez. The movie premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland on August 7, 2015. The dialogue is in German, but has English sub-titles. Parts biography, drama and thriller, it has a runtime of 105 minutes. Certain viewers may find the film at times to be slow moving, or too dialogue driven. The movie is certainly more of a cerebral viewing experience, but one that held my interest from the opening scene to the closing credits. Featuring excellent performances from a well rounded cast, spot on directing, and an absorbing story, for those of you interested in a lesser known aspect of Post-World War II history, this should make for time well spent.