There’s often a higher bar that films in foreign languages have to reach than a film in your native tongue. They have to be compelling enough visually to keep you from just reading the subtitles, interesting enough dialogue that you want to keep reading, and riveting enough to make you want to put in the effort to take in the full experience. Many of the foreign films I enjoy relate to the culture of stories, historical events, or an international phenomenon with which I am unaware. I might be unique in loving having my own ignorance exposed, but that’s exactly what Lars Kraume’s The People vs. Fritz Bauer was able to do. I was a child in the 80s and I recall Nazi leaders being found on occasion, often in South America, but it was something that belonged to a previous time, and it seemed to be universally agreed that it was bad. What a whitewashed view of history a child can retain through plain old ignorance.
Fritz Bauer was a real judge in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. Born there, he was a socialist and a Jew, so not exactly beloved by the Nazi party. He was able to flee to Denmark, and then Sweden, after being imprisoned for his socialist leanings. We meet Fritz (Burghart Klaussner) after he has returned to Germany to help rebuild a stronger democratic society as a state Attorney General. He has been tasked with finding high ranking Nazi officials, specifically Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for transporting Jews to the concentration camps, part of the “Final Solution.” Bauer has a reputation among his colleagues in the government for being harsh, vengeful, but above all he is a patriot. He is proud of his country, but unwilling to wipe its past crimes away.
Given the number of past Nazis still holding high ranking government positions, his superiors aren’t really interested in rocking the boat by allowing Bauer to actually bring Eichmann to justice. Watching Bauer and his protégé, Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), try to investigate a letter they received from Argentina reporting the presence of Eichmann, living under a pseudonym, is thrilling. They have to navigate through (and around) both their own government and the Israeli government (a treasonous offense) in hopes of bringing Eichmann to justice.
One of the things that the movie does really well is show that no one is invulnerable. The German government’s vulnerability comes with the fact that they cannot allow Eichmann to be brought to justice because it would expose unethical cracks that could crumble their fragile parliament. For Bauer, it is that he cannot let Eichmann go, because doing that he’ll betray his people, and his own ideals. Lastly, Angermann cannot live his true life as a homosexual, and is thus is vulnerable to blackmail by all those around him. The tension in the movie builds rapidly as each side has a lot at stake.
The People vs. Fritz Bauer is not merely interested in the quest to bring criminals to justice, but also the steep cost associated with doing so. It highlights the turbulent path that a society took in recognizing the atrocities in Germany’s past. I really enjoyed watching the struggles each man endured trying to do what was right – even at great personal cost. Klaussner performance captures a man struggling to maintain his identity, save his country from itself, and hopefully inspire the best integrity in others. We should all have such noble goals.