First, let’s get my minor complaint out of the way: the marketing for The People versus Fritz Bauer (Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer, opening at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema on Friday, Aug. 26 – no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled) leaves something to be desired. Specifically, a more accurate translation of the film’s original title would be ‘The State Against Fritz Bauer’, which is a far more accurate representation of its content.
Written and directed by Lars Kraume, Fritz Bauer tells the true story of the State of Hesse’s post-World War II Attorney General. A Jewish émigré who fled Germany for the safety of 1935 Denmark (and later, 1943 Sweden), Bauer returned (along with friend and future Chancellor Willy Brandt) to his homeland after the end of the war, determined to bring Nazi war criminals to justice at the hands of a democratized West German judicial system.
Some of those war criminals — including such infamous villains as Martin Bormann, Adolf Eichmann, and Josef Mengele — had, of course, long since fled Europe for South America. Many less prominent former Nazis, however, had settled into the business of rebuilding and governing the new bundesrepublik, insinuating themselves into the reborn country’s business, governmental, and judicial bureaucracies.
Unsurprisingly, when Bauer (Burghart Klaussner, last seen in these parts in Volker Schlondorff’s 2014 feature Diplomacy) receives evidence that former SS man Eichmann is living openly in Buenos Aires, he finds his superiors less than enthusiastic to pursue the case. Taking matters into his own hands (and exposing himself to charges of treason), Bauer contacts Mossad to help with the search, but the fledgling Israeli intelligence agency initially rebuffs him citing a lack of evidence.
Kraume’s film provides a suspenseful examination of Dr. Bauer’s dogged (and ultimately successful) effort to locate Eichmann, who would be kidnapped by Mossad agents and transported to Israel in 1960. The film doesn’t confront the legal and ethical questions surrounding that trial (for more on the subject, check out the excellent recent documentary, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt), instead focusing on the long shadows cast over West Germany by the manifold sins of the Nazi regime and on Bauer’s commitment to bring war criminals to trial in the ‘new’ nation.
Klaussner’s performance is one of the finest you’ll see all year: rumpled, lumpy, and bespectacled, he’s the embodiment of an aging jurist and intellectual. Klaussner is ably supported by Sebastian Blomberg (who surely has a Bond villain in his future), Ronald Zehrfeld (who bears a striking resemblance to Brendan Fraser, of all people), and – in the small but critical role of Eichmann – Michael Schenk, the spitting image of the bureaucrat in charge of transporting Europe’s Jews to the concentration camps.
After cleaning up on the festival circuit, I have to believe Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer is all but guaranteed a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at next year’s Academy Awards. It’s Klaussner’s performance that anchors the film, however, and one can only hope that Academy voters will also acknowledge his work with a Best Actor nomination.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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