'The People vs. Fritz Bauer'
Lars Kraume’s ‘The People vs. Fritz Bauer’ is an intriguing film from compelling subject matter, but isn’t quite as strong as it could or should be.
The story is about (you guessed it) Fritz Bauer, an important figure in German history who was imprisoned in a concentration camp as a young man and fled his native country for years before returning as a prosecutor to help track down and imprison surviving Nazis for war crimes. At the time, he was considered controversial as there had been little retribution for the Holocaust in Germany following the war. Many former Nazis occupied positions of power and felt threatened by Bauer’s quest. Writer/director Kraume’s film wisely focuses in on a specific chapter of Bauer’s life rather than attempting to overreach, but ultimately slides away from the filmmaker when he depends on fiction to force in a dramatic structure.
The film kicks off in 1957 when Bauer (Burghart Klaubner) is found passed out in a bathtub after an overdose of booze and pills. Those who’ve been trying to crush his Nazi hunting mission attempt to use the event as means to force him into retirement. Bauer was also starting to catch a break in his hunt for Aldolf Eichmann (Michael Schenk), one of the key architects of the Third Reich. Bauer receives a letter with strong evidence suggesting that Eichmann is Argentina, but is wary of informants reaching out to the hiding Nazi if he contacted Interpol or German authorities. Instead, he approaches the Israeli secret service hoping for quieter support internationally.
This portion of the film works quite well. While Kraume is not a particularly stylish filmmaker and shoots things rather flatly, the story is taunt and packed with inherent suspense. Klaubner is absolutely remarkable as Bauer. He gives vivid and intense performances as a man possessed by a righteous mission while beset by physical strain and outside forces beyond his control. Things become increasingly complicated for the character when reports sneak out suggesting that he may have seen male prostitutes in the past. (Anti-homosexual laws were still very much in play in Germany.) While pursuing his own complicated case as prosecutor, Bauer is suddenly forced to defend himself elsewhere. It’s then that he strikes up a friendship with sympathetic young prosecutor Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), one of the few trustworthy people who believes in Bauer, but also a man with a few secrets of his own.
The Angermann character is entirely fictional, and unfortunately the movie increasingly focuses on their relationship and becomes weaker for it. Without getting into spoiler territory, the secrets that character holds and the way they play into the larger narrative are contrived and push the movie into needless melodrama. Granted, it’s a useful way for the filmmaker to condense the narrative into something satisfying, but it takes away from the authenticity elsewhere. What started as a tense and all too real thriller with genuine suspense gradually descends into a polemic with characters vocalizing every idea in the filmmaker’s head until it becomes obnoxious.
That being said, Kraume rights his sinking ship by the end, proving that the slip-ups had purpose. The film might be a bit dull visually (especially compared to what Steven Spielberg did with a similar period and setting in ‘Bridge of Spies’ last year), but the story is strong enough to carry audiences through to the end. Burghart Klaubner’s performance is so intense that he provides enough drama to carry the occasionally pedestrian filmmaking.
This story is worth telling, even if that telling leaves room for improvement. This is no masterpiece, but it’s a unique tale from a period of history that’s been strip-mined for every conceivable form of thriller and drama already. In a way, its’ impressive that Kraume found anything new to say or do with the material, even if the results aren’t exactly perfect.