The People vs. Fritz Bauer deservedly walked away with recognition at the 2016 German Film Awards, where it won for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay. The film is an amazing historical adventure based on the true account of the attorney general of Hessen, Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klaussner is wonderful in the role), whose largely unknown heroic actions helped to bring one of the most notorious Nazi war criminals to justice in a trial publicized before the world.
Until he received a lead from a father whose daughter was dating a former Nazi’s son, Bauer had been unsuccessful in indicting many high ranking Nazis who were on his war crimes list; they had fled the country, infiltrated the government, and were protected by colleagues. This lead was to turn out differently. It was about Adolph Eichmann, SS-Obersturmbannführer, the man responsible for organizing the deportation of thousands of Jews to concentration camps where many were murdered in what the Nazi’s covertly referred to as “The Final Solution.”
The film begins with the spotlight on Bauer. He is under extreme duress. He is saved from a possible suicide attempt which he denies and which is revealed to be a set up to remove him from his position because he is despised for wanting to bring former Nazis to justice. Bauer’s backstory is revealed through his conversations with others: his colleagues, his sister, his superior. We learn how he was Hitler’s three-fold enemy, as a Jew, as a supporter of democratic Germany, and as a closet homosexual. In 1933 Bauer protested against the transfer of power to Hitler’s regime.He was arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into the Heuberg concentration camp for eight months. He escaped from Germany to Denmark. When Denmark was overrun by Hitler, he escaped to Sweden.
Rather than to go to Israel after the war, Bauer returns to Germany to help rebuild and strengthen the fledgling democracy which he believes will not return to its past if citizens acknowledge the genocide of the Holocaust of which many were largely unaware (unless they were were eye-witnesses to the killing machinery the Nazis had established in the camps). Screenwriters make clear that Bauer’s desire to uncover war criminals is not for the purpose of revenge, but for the purpose of Germany’s correcting the historical record with accountability and justice.
Because the current Adenauer government was peopled with former Nazis (National Socialists), who believed that they had done nothing wrong and considered those resistance fighters who moved against Hitler’s Third Reich as disloyal traitors, the real truth of Germany’s war crimes was suppressed. This is affirmed again and again in the development of the action that Bauer is fighting his own government to seek justice. Bauer’s depression and frustration augment; he receives death threats, files on war criminals go missing, written evidence disappears. Every case that he attempts to bring against war criminals is upended.
It is then we discover the irony of his situation. He is a Jew and the attorney general who has former Nazis and their friends (undercover), on his legal staff, enabled by a corrupted justice system. They are there to met out their justice: to make sure that evidence against former Reich officials and their friends world-wide is doctored and disappeared. They give lip service to the democratic principles Germany supposedly is adopting but have not jettisoned notions which brought Hitler to power. Bauer, an outcast though their superior, is undermined at every turn.
Director Lars Kraume has done an exceptional job in recounting just enough of Bauer’s history to aid our understanding of the events in the present: his depression, his insistence that his is not a self-righteous Jewish Nazi hunter but a German citizen helping Germany establish a finer justice than what Hitler rendered with National Socialism. The themes are clear; justice is near impossible when the unjust willfully and surreptitiously overthrow it to perpetuate their own power dynamics and culturally solidify undemocratic, harmful, racist policies. He is a man at odds with former Nazis and current pro National Socialist hounds nipping at his heels, obstructing his progress. There are few he can trust to carry out his intentions.
When Bauer discovers from the whistleblower that Eichmann is secretly hiding in Buenos Aires under a false identity, employed for a German company in a well paid job, he can only confide in two people. However, former Nazis know he is working on the case and word leaks to those in his department that he has discovered Eichmann’s whereabouts. Kraume keeps us engaged with suspense through his sharp edits and scene switches which keep us guessing who is false to Bauer and how he will pull off Eichmann’s apprehension despite massive governmental resistance.
With precision in the cinematic narrative, the filmmakers reveal the complexity of Bauer’s wishes. The first is to bring Eichmann to trial in Germany so that justice will be served and Germans understand and acknowledge the Third Reich’s logical, systematic genocide and reprehensible inhumanity. The second is to uproot noxious, unjust concepts that threaten Adenauer’s government. Ultimately, Bauer hopes war crimes revelations will educate the citizens toward a “better way” with a solid democracy and justice for all.
Bauer considers the continual obstructions by his staff. He grows anxious from increasing death threats. He tells his colleague who becomes a confidante because of a shared personal secret, that Eichmann cannot be brought to trial in Germany. Former Nazis in the justice system and the government will never allow it. He decides to commit treason. He indirectly contacts the Mossad to get their help. He wisely cover ups that he is the one who is engineering Eichmann’s capture through them. How Bauer takes the appropriate steps to insure Eichmann’s abduction, faces the difficulties the Mossad forces him to overcome, and obtains unlikely help to corroborate evidence that the man is indeed Eichmann, is exceptional, riveting filmmaking.
Kraume unravels the political atmosphere of Bauer’s time, proving that unjust, discriminatory ideas and behaviors die hard. Additional themes in the film resonate with us today: the struggle for justice is long and hard but worth the effort to establish truth. What was particularly astounding was how Bauer reached out to the Mossad, knowing that without their assistance, the suppression of facts about the Holocaust would have continued. Instead, with their help Eichmann’s trial becomes s a world-wide event. Through others’ living testimony at the trial, people gradually learn about the deportations, the brutality, the murders. Germany’s association with The Third Reich begins to be exorcised so accountability and eventual restoration can truly begin.
The publicized trial and interest in the Holocaust also encouraged Bauer to bring Nazi criminals to a German court. After prodigious efforts, the war crimes of The Third Reich in the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials (1963-67), became known to the German public. The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials were a series of trials charging 22 defendants under German law as low-level officials at the Auschwitz camp. The massive public exposure nationally and internationally finally informed the world about the once covert atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis at Auschwitz.
The People vs. Fritz Bauer is an important film for the historical information it reveals. Its message is powerful: justice is integral to the health of a viable democracy. The film uplifts the power of heroism: it took inner strength for Bauer to go back to his country and work next to many former Nazis. His hope to make the society, culture, and government more just eventually became a reality through his tireless efforts.
The sad irony is that Bauer was forced to commit treason: seeking the Mossad’s assistance was the only avenue to justice. It was necessary. In a revelatory segment filmmakers show Eichmann taping his memoirs. Statements he makes show he wasn’t “just following orders,” a false excuse used by many, characterized as “the banality of evil.” On tape he says he fell down on his job. He wishes that he exterminated all of the Jews. The actor who plays Eichmann states it almost as an afterthought. It is a chilling reminder of the malevolence of those who commit genocide. This is not the “banality of evil.” It is terrifying, reprobate “in-your-face” wickedness without a shred of remorse or acknowledgement of inhumane criminality.