Does any culture examine its own ugly history with the honesty of the Germans? Whether telling new stories of the Nazi years or recalling East Germany’s brutal secret police, artists and filmmakers continue to remind us of the outrages of the 20th century.
The latest remarkable movie, “The People Vs. Fritz Bauer,” opens with the real Bauer speaking in a black-and-white video. He shares his belief that the generation assuming social and political responsibilities in the 1960s will deal with the past with open eyes and minds. The film that follows justifies Bauer’s faith.
The English title suggests a court trial, and the German title “Der Staat Gegen Fritz Bauer” – “The Country Against Fritz Bauer” – comes closer to describing the story. The attorney general of Hesse (where Frankfurt is) was indeed opposed by most of the nation when he went after ex-Nazis in the late 1950s. Some Germans simply wanted to forget the war; some didn’t want to spend the time and expense to track down criminals years later.
But many former Nazis held high positions in the democratic government of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. National security adviser Hans Globke had served as chief legal counsel in the Office for Jewish Affairs in the Ministry of the Interior – the section Adolf Eichmann ran to implement the Holocaust. When Bauer went after Eichmann, who had fled to Argentina and assumed a different name, few wanted to help.
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The film shows the bureaucracy involved in capturing Eichmann. Bauer strangles on red tape, fights indifference, is investigated by officials who hope the gay prosecutor will commit a sexual indiscretion for which he can be jailed. (Homosexuality was illegal at the time in Germany.) When he gets nowhere, he turns secretly to the Mossad, knowing an alliance with Israel’s secret service could mean a charge of treason.
Director Lars Kraume, who wrote the script with Olivier Guez, creates a composite character in Karl Angermann. Bauer’s assistant, like his boss, is a closeted but married gay man. Unlike Bauer, he can’t remain celibate, and his habits imperil Bauer’s reputation. The filmmakers presumably include him not only so Bauer has a single, identifiable ally but also to show that certain Nazi laws – including persecution of homosexuals – continued during the democracy.
Ronald Zehrfeld, unrecognizable as the sinister betrayer in “Phoenix,” brings gravity and sadness to Angermann. (He won a best supporting actor at the German Film Awards; the film, director and writers also won.) But the movie belongs to Burghart Klaussner, who plays the resolutely unheroic Bauer with gruff dignity, a short fuse, sad cynicism and a refusal to quiet his conscience.
Though Bauer famously brought Auschwitz officials to trial in the mid-1960s, nobody knew of his involvement in Eichmann’s capture until 10 years after his death in 1968. If he had a motto, it would surely have been George Santayana’s statement that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The Germans take that message to heart. Americans, who may have the shortest collective memory in the Western world, could take a leaf from their book.
‘The People Vs. Fritz Bauer’
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Burghart Klaussner, Ronald Zehrfeld.
Director: Lars Kraume.
Length: 105 minutes.
Rating: R (some sexual content).