In 1957, Fritz Bauer, a German-Jewish lawyer, was the attorney general of the German state of Hesse. A squat, intense man who was briefly imprisoned in a German concentration camp, Bauer is the intriguing subject of “The People vs. Fritz Bauer.” The film is a fact-based drama about Bauer, who made it his life’s mission to weed out ex-Nazis from chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s post-war government. It turns out that Bauer was also key to bringing Holocaust war criminals to justice in Germany in the Auschwitz trials of 1963.
Although largely unknown in the United States, in Europe Bauer has been the subject of museum exhibitions and books. But it was only a decade ago that his involvement in the 1960 Israeli Mossad’s capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina came to light.
While stories of Nazis make for thrilling cinema, director Lars Kraume purposely goes behind the scenes to detail the major obstacles Bauer faced in prosecuting Nazi functionaries. Kraume’s gamble paid off—the film was a major success in his native Germany, garnering six Lolas, the German equivalent of the Oscars, including best picture and best director.
The film opens with a black-and-white clip of the real Fritz Bauer talking about Germany as a country that produced both Goethe and Hitler, a country with a culture that has “light and dark sides.” In that clip, as well as in the movie scene that echoes it, Bauer is doing something controversial, and even radical—he is addressing a subject that, until that point, Germany had steadfastly avoided discussing with its young people.
Bauer, as played by veteran German actor Burghart Klaussner, is a brilliant, hyper-vigilant jurist perennially engulfed in a cloud of cigar smoke. From the onset, Bauer is a highly complicated man. In the film’s opening scene, he almost drowns in his bathtub after accidentally mixing red wine and sleeping pills. His enemies gleefully characterize the incident as a suicide attempt.
Bauer is also a man who rightfully senses conspiracy theories all around him. He’s surrounded by uncooperative colleagues, many of whom are hiding their own Nazi past. Still a controversial subject in Germany, Kraume is not hesitant to name names, implicating everyone from Mercedes-Benz to Adenauer himself.
To add further to the film’s complexity, Bauer is revealed to be a closeted homosexual who had been involved with male prostitutes in Denmark. That situation is coupled with the invention of a closeted state attorney named Karl Angermann, Bauer’s right-hand man and sole confidant. Angermann’s presence in the film is meant to show, albeit awkwardly, that Nazi-influenced policies, such as the infamously homophobic Paragraph 175, were still part of German law.
Bauer, whose work brings him international attention, as well as death threats, is eventually tipped off by a man in Argentina who writes him a letter that Eichmann is living there under a pseudonym. The information sets Bauer on a convoluted journey through a hostile German bureaucracy in which both Interpol and Germany’s intelligence service, the BND, refuse to help him, claiming they are not “responsible for political crimes.” In a fit of frustration, Bauer declares that even his own office is enemy territory and his inner circle untrustworthy.
Unable to convince his government to act on the informant’s explosive information, Bauer makes a surreptitious trip to Israel to engage the Mossad to bring Eichmann to trial. The move is not only risky, but also treasonous. Even his devoted protégée Angermann questions his boss’ strategy. Bauer tries to cut a deal with the Israelis that once Eichmann is captured, he will be extradited to Germany.
The course of history took a different turn, and Eichmann was brought to stand trial in Israel. He was found guilty on all charges brought against him and sentenced to death. To this day, the footage of Eichmann testifying from behind a bulletproof glass booth stands as an indelible image of Holocaust history.
Bauer would go on to prosecute many of Nazism’s worst perpetrators. But as the film’s title suggests, during his lifetime he was not a hero in his country. Redemption was still in the offing as Fritz Bauer was tried in the court of public opinion.