Lars Kraume’s German-language movie, The People Versus Fritz Bauer, bores into Germany’s dark past with unflinching intensity, exposing the raw wounds of its preeminent role in the Holocaust. Scheduled to be screened at the 40th Toronto International Film Festival on September 15 and 18, it takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when West Germany, as it was called then, was still years away from coming to terms with its Nazi legacy.
Fritz Bauer, the central character in this engrossing film, is the attorney-general of the state of Hesse. A German Jew who was hounded out of Germany in 1936, he fled to Denmark before decamping in Sweden.
With Germany’s defeat in World War II, Bauer — a Social Democratic activist — returned to his homeland, hoping to participate in its rehabilitation. Settling in West Germany, he devoted himself to the new West German state, which eventually would be a beacon of constitutional democracy and a paragon of transparency with respect to the Nazi era.
In an attempt to make amends for Nazi crimes, West Germany funnelled billions of dollars worth of restitution payments to Israel and German and European Jews. But in other respects, the West German government swept the Nazi epoch under the rug as it tried to move on.
Bauer, a victim of Nazi antisemitism, opposed this approach, intent on arresting German war criminals and bringing them to justice. As portrayed by Burghart Klaussner in a stellar performance, Bauer is a serious, chain-smoking, no-nonsense official who’s consumed by the task of hunting down Nazi bigwigs who got away after the war.
The film unfolds in a variety of locales. It opens in Frankfurt, where Bauer is based, decamps briefly in Buenos Aires, where one of the most important Nazi murderers lives under an assumed name, and darts in and out of Israel, which has a direct stake in the capture of Nazis.
Bauer, a workaholic, has dedicated his life to tracking down major Nazis like Martin Bormann, Joseph Mengele and Adolf Eichmann. But his officials generally don’t share his zeal, and Bauer complains that files have gone missing from his office. Not surprisingly, antisemites send him hate mail.
Fortune smiles on Bauer when he receives a letter from a German emigrant in Buenos Aires claiming that his daughter is dating the son of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief organizers of the Holocaust. It’s the break for which he’s been waiting. He dreams of the day when Eichmann will be put on trial in West Germany, so that the younger generation of Germans will have the opportunity to learn about the greatest crime in history.
To catch Eichmann, Bauer needs the cooperation of high-level government officials. His boss assures him that West Germany will eventually face its ugly past, but Bauer is impatient. He threatens to work with the Mossad — Israel’s external spy agency — if that’s what it takes to find and apprehend Eichmann. Bauer’s superior is basically sympathetic, but warns him he would be guilty of treason should he contact the Mossad. His other colleagues, Kreidler (Sebastian Blomberg) and Gebhardt (Jorg Schattauf), scheme to undermine him.
Virtually Bauer’s only ally is a young state attorney named Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), who expedites the search for Eichmann by means of a German journalist who has excellent contacts in Argentina’s German emigre community. The journalist discovers that Eichmann works in a Mercedes-Benz factory and that he goes under the name of Ricardo Klement.
Armed with this rock-solid evidence, Bauer flies to Israel on a series of trips to meet, among other Israeli officials, Isser Harel, the director of the Mossad. Bauer is still keen on putting Eichmann on trial in West Germany, but he doesn’t realize that the West German government, backed by the United States, has no interest in a show trial at this juncture. The Israelis, meanwhile, have decided that Eichmann will stand trial in Jerusalem.
The People Versus Fritz Bauer negotiates these complex twists and turns in seamless fashion, delivering a film that is neither didactic nor boring and never less than compelling.