A hit at last year’s Jewish International Film Festival, The People Vs Fritz Bauer recounts a similar period in Germany’s history to a JIFF highlight from the previous year, Labyrinth of Lies. This equally handsome production chronicles real-life corruption within the country’s political system and highlights the difficulty of exposing those responsible for Nazi atrocities in the years directly after World War 2.
The 1950s were years in which Germany had yet to come to terms with her recent past. It was a period between the Nuremberg trials held by the allied forces addressing international law, and the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials where defendants were charged under Germany’s criminal laws.
During this time Fritz Bauer was the state attorney general, a rare Jewish presence in a postwar government that was still largely populated with the same politicians who had been in power under Hitler. Bauer was determined to bring to court former Nazi officers who were now in hiding. He was particularly interested in Adolf Eichmann, but had to continue his pursuits covertly, knowing his movements were constantly being monitored by his colleagues. The same colleagues who were prepared to expose Bauer’s homosexuality in order to keep him from speaking out.
In the film’s narrative, Bauer finds an ally in a younger officer, Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld – best known as the male lead in Phoenix). Although a fictitious character, Angermann is used here to illustrate the lengths German authorities would go to to silence those trying to expose former Nazi offenders and the consequences of lacking discretion under a Nazi-inspired homophobic legal system.
With those in Bauer’s own ranks thwarting his efforts, his only chance of uncovering the truth was by seeking assistance from agencies outside of Germany. The film even goes so far as to name big German companies that played a hand in the cover up.
The historical events are brought to the screen with a great deal of suspense, playing like a classic police procedural where Bauer is the only honest cop in town. It’s a procedural energised by a forceful performance from veteran actor Burghart Klaussner. He effectively embodies the dogged tenacity of an incredibly persistent man who was content to remain a footnote in history despite his heroic achievements.
The film also benefits from great period detail and an excellent score by Christoph Kaiser which mixes cool, 50s style jazz with orchestral flourishes.
The People Vs Fritz Bauer swept the Lolas last year, Germany’s national film awards, winning Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Set Design and Costumes. It’s the kind of robust drama that proves there are still plenty of great untold stories to discover from one of history’s darkest chapters.
The People Vs Fritz Bauer is in limited release from January 26
Richard Leathem @dickiegee
This review was originally published in October 2016 when The People Vs Fritz Bauer screened at the Jewish Internal Film Festival