The People vs. Fritz Bauer: Frustration of Purpose, by David Bax
As the fortune cookie says, a cynic is a frustrated optimist. In Lars Kraume’s The People vs. Fritz Bauer, we get to see the title character demonstrate the full spectrum of that koan. As a Jewish leftist judge and prosecutor in the decade after the horrors of Nazism, he remains doggedly intent on bringing the architects of the Holocaust to justice. Unfortunately, his fellow countrymen are too sated by consumerism (one of the same opiates we continue to use today) and his fellow government employees have too many Nazi skeletons in their closets to share his fervor. Unfortunately, you will likely leave the theater feeling just as frustrated as Bauer, as Kraume repeatedly squanders both the narrative and thematic potential of his film.
The real Fritz Bauer led a varied and fascinating life but Kraume, to his credit and that of fellow screenwriter Olivier Guez, narrows the scope of the story down to one through-line, the search for and apprehension of Adolf Eichmann. Acting on a solid tip that Eichmann is in Argentina but stymied at every turn by his own government, Bauer (Burghart Klaußner) makes the highly illegal decision to covertly cooperate with Israel’s Mossad. As an audience surrogate, Kraume and Guez give us a younger judge and a protégé to Bauer named Karl Angermann, played by the fantastic Ronald Zehrfeld from Phoenix, Barbara and Beloved Sisters.
Thus, The People vs. Fritz Bauer becomes, hypothetically, a procedural. But Kraume disastrously keeps most of the investigative work offscreen, robbing any forward momentum from the case that’s meant to be the driving component of the narrative. On the rare occasion we do get to see some leads tracked down, like when Bauer goes to interview a former SS officer in hiding who now works for Mercedes Benz, the picture comes briefly to life.
As a small saving grace, though, we’ve got Klaußner’s performance to lean on. His rumpled, world-weary, sarcastic demeanor provides both sympathy and humor. Yet his constant grunting and throat-clearing (shades of Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner) suggest an inner bile clawing to get out and wreak havoc on the complacently unjust world. His air of resignation is a weakening façade.
Bauer, it turns out, has more reasons than just diplomacy and decorum to hide his true self. He is a homosexual who is closeted at a time when it would be ruinous to be otherwise (still the case for so many in our current day). He fights daily for the soul of a country that would hate him if they knew him.
Herein lies Kraume’s major misstep. What does it mean to be a patriot of a country that has no place for you? What is it like to be loyal to an idea of a nation that doesn’t currently exist and maybe never did? In an era of “Make American Great Again,” when our own country has sharp and fundamental differences of opinion about its own identity, these questions should ring deep and true here. Instead, they are given only a passing glance in favor of hollow and muted melodrama.