When “The People Vs. Fritz Bauer” opens, the German attorney general has to be rescued by his driver after falling asleep in an overflowing bathtub from one too many sleeping pills.
Rumors of a suicide attempt spread. “I have a pistol,” the defiant but weary Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klaussner) says. “If I decide to kill myself, there won’t be any rumors.”
The film, crisply directed by German filmmaker Lars Kraume, is a compelling historical drama about a Jewish public prosecutor determined to hold former SS officers to account for their war crimes, while deterred by Germans loyal to the Third Reich and in positions of authority. Then, Bauer gets a tip that Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution, is hiding out in Argentina and giving interviews expressing regret that all 10.3 million Jews hadn’t perished in the Holocaust.
The gruff and crusty Bauer’s inner life is complicated, he’s beset by health ailments and rarely without a cigarette or cigar. But he burns with determination to bring war criminals to justice.
It’s an uphill battle: Bauer’s efforts leads to death threats in the mail, and investigations by his junior associates into the whereabouts of Nazis are routinely obstructed.
Bauer enlists young investigator Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld) in his plan to nab Eichmann with the help of Mossad, Israel’s spy agency. It’s treasonous to do so, and it puts Bauer at risk, but Germany’s compromised security forces leave him little choice. Bauer hopes that if Israel is successful, it will extradite Eichmann to Germany to stand trial.
“If we want to do something for our country, we’ll have to betray it, in this case,” Bauer tells his underling.
Like Bauer, Angermann carries a secret. It proves to be his Achilles’ heel, and leads to unforeseen consequences.
The real-life Bauer, who played a leading role in the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt, is shown on TV urging German’s youth to see through the sanitized history they’re being given. Bauer was also a character in last year’s German film “Labyrinth of Lies,” which told a similar story of prosecutors forcing Germany to account for its past.
In “The People Vs. Fritz Bauer,” Klaussner’s no-nonsense yet nuanced portrayal burnishes Bauer’s role in bringing former SS officers to justice, while Kraume adds enough intrigue to keep viewers interested.
Add this to the ever-growing list of films that bring a moral reckoning to the horrors of World War II, a period of which, we’re often reminded, “we must never forget.”
“The People Vs. Fritz Bauer”
3 stars (out of four)
Starring: Burghart Klaussner, Rudiger Klink, Ronald Zehrfeld
Director: Lars Kraume
Running time: 105 minutes
Rating: R for sexual content.
The lowdown: A public prosecutor in Frankfurt who prosecuted Nazi officers relentlessly pursues the capture and extradition of the notorious Adolf Eichmann. In German with English subtitles.