Nazi war criminals being brought to justice has made for great cinema in everything from 1961’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” to last year’s “Labyrinth of Lies.” But those trials are just the tip of the iceberg in “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” a stiff historical thriller that dramatizes the obstacles that tenacious state attorney general Bauer faced in prosecuting the architects of Auschwitz while Germany’s postwar government was still infested with the same politicians who’d been in power under Hitler. Though relatively conservative in its approach, Lars Kraume’s teleplay-style treatment of a still-touchy subject has the nerve to name names, implicating everyone from chancellor Konrad Adenauer to Mercedes-Benz. Stylistically, the film looks more or less the way a pro forma 1957 telling of the same incidents might, though Kraume doesn’t pull punches or shy away from how Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, used Kraume’s homosexuality to muzzle him.
Here, coming across almost like a Hessian Columbo, the aloof yet hyper-intelligent Bauer (Burghart Klaussner) must make himself seem as non-threatening as possible in order to accomplish his political goals. A Jewish lawyer who was himself briefly interned in a German concentration camp, Bauer made it his life’s work to bring Nazism’s worst offenders to trail in German courts. In the opening scene, the elderly lawman is discovered passed out in his bath at home — an incident his political rivals try to misconstrue as a suicide attempt in hopes that it might force him into retirement. But Bauer isn’t so easily dissuaded: “I have a pistol,” he tells his boss, brusque as ever. “If I decide to kill myself, there won’t be any rumors.”
A short, intense little man with another decade to go before his retirement, Bauer is best remembered today for the leading role he played in the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. In 1957, he hoped Adolf Eichmann might be the first and juiciest former SS officer to stand trial, but as the film depicts, his crusade pitted him against virtually every entity in the country, from right-wing intelligence agencies to the chancellery itself. Hence the film’s title, which suggests that Bauer, who would go on to prosecute some of Nazism’s worst offenders, was himself being tried in the court of public opinion.
Twice, the film shows Bauer (both the real figure and Klaussner in character) appearing on television to implore Germany’s young people to assert their own identity and “confront Germany’s whole history,” by which he meant looking past the white-washed version their own political leaders were feeding them. To have said more at the time might have been treasonous — a charge Bauer was already risking when he went around his superiors’ backs and arranged for Mossad to do his dirty work, giving the Israeli intelligence agency the information they needed to find and arrest Eichmann (who was hiding in Argentina) with the understanding that he might be able to extradite him.
But that scandal seems like small potatoes compared to how uncooperative the BND and other entities were in trying to derail Bauer’s efforts. Both Interpol and German intelligence claimed they were “not responsible for political crimes,” but according to the dramatic license Kraume and co-writer Olivier Guez allow themselves here, agents of those groups were actively trying to sabotage his investigation. Extrapolating from a Danish police record in which Bauer was arrested among male prostitutes, the screenplay invents a closeted state attorney named Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), whom Bauer invites into his inner circle and entrusts as his lone confidant.
Though somewhat clumsy in the way it handles the analogy, the film aims to show how the punishingly homophobic Paragraph 175, which sentenced men to harsh prison sentences for any gay behavior, was itself an example of Nazi policy still being practiced in German law — not unlike the many politicos who’d shed their swastikas and gone right back to work. The recently married Karl, who’s unusually careless in his dealings with a cross-dressing nightclub singer (played by a digitally endowed actress, Lilith Stangenberg), makes a too-easy target, though the blackmail and melodrama that ensues supplies the film its most emotional dimension.
To fully appreciate the significance of Kraume’s confrontational revisionism, imagine a different version of “Argo” that dared to explain why revolutionary Iranians overthrew the American embassy in the first place or a remake of “Mississippi Burning” in which the FBI was held accountable for failing to engage with (and at times setting back) the American civil rights movement. That’s how radically the film reframes a conversation that has too long been skewed for the comfort of those with too much to lose.
At times, the helmer allows himself to indulge in certain conspiracy theories, implying that the BND and CIA both knew the whereabout of Eichmann and other key Nazis all along, while constantly depicting high-ranking right-wingers whispering into phones as they try to undermine Bauer’s investigation. But then, such liberties seem fair considering the bombshell at the heart of this historical piece: Namely, that while Bauer was tasked with locating ex-SS officers now in hiding, it proved easier for him to locate Nazi war criminals than to convince his government to act on his information.