A character could be written with the best intentions, yet still be unintentionally distant and alien. This is the case with the title character in the German film The People vs. Fritz Bauer, directed by Lars Kraume. I wanted very much to engage with Mr. Bauer’s real-life quest to hunt down former Nazis in Post-WWII Germany (and wherever else they escaped to), but I, as a viewer, did not feel as if I was welcome in the story.
A small number of films explore how anti-Semitism and corruption were allowed to fester in Germany and in other countries long after Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in 1945. It should be no surprise looking at the US election today to realize that politicians and leaders may have their own agenda, but they also represent the wishes of their citizens to some extent. Even if you get rid of the leader, what do the people want, and what do they actually believe in? What is the undercurrent, so to speak? This is why “the people” would be against Fritz Bauer, the chief District Attorney prosecuting former Nazis. Labyrinth of Lies, another German film dealing with the same topic, has a particular memorable scene in which a doting school principal is outed as a former Nazi. The title of this film is also an apt summation of the condition of the times – Germany was unable to understand its recent past, and as such, found itself on a precipice when it came time to resume post-war life.
In The People vs. Fritz Bauer we follow the day-to-day life of Mr. Bauer in the mid 50s as he’s approaching the maladies of old age, retirement, and an escalating number of death threats. He also has a score to settle with Eichmann, who was responsible for shuttling the Jews to concentration camps and who now seems to be living large in any number of countries, just not Germany. I commend Burghart Klaussner for his performance of Bauer as an increasingly tired and erratic old man with countless physical tics.
My trouble with the film is that I felt kept at arm’s length from Bauer, and I don’t see why this needs to be the case. Bauer is a fascinating individual of history, and Klaussner makes him come to life, so what’s the problem? I believe it has to do with the writing. I feel that the dialogue is too expository and makes references to events that we should see dramatized, especially Bauer’s earlier life and how he would have experienced 1945.
There’s a story here about a closeted, gay Jewish lawyer who appears to be homophobic (Roy Cohn, of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and dramatized by Al Pacino in the HBO adaptation, is a far more insidious example of what can happen when you are stuck, yes, in your own labyrinth of lies). An interesting story arc seems to ignite when Bauer helps another closeted gay lawyer get a male prostitute off a prostitution charge, yet, I did not feel that there was any payoff.
My editor reminded me of the term “deus ex machina,” which applies on a scene-by-scene basis to this film, as opposed to one singular event, like in Lord of the Flies. If Bauer gets stuck, he has something to help him, or he’ll call someone, so he’s really not that stuck in the first place. The same with the other characters. I think the barrier to complete identification with Bauer is simply that we don’t know what he has at his full disposal, so we can’t really know if he’s truly vulnerable or not at specific aspects in the film. It cheapens suspense and excitement when characters simply procure what they need without involving the audience. It’s the surprise gun in the third act that just was conveniently located in the bottom desk drawer. And that desk was just shipped from IKEA two minutes ago. (Yes, I’m aware that you’d need to make the desk in the first place, but that’s my point.)
Events transpire that involve the newly formed nation of Israel, and I believe the film does not contextualize enough about Germany’s relationship with Israel to make these scenes pay off. A simple Wikipedia search will tell you what happened to Eichmann, which makes you wonder what happened to Bauer as a result. These questions are not suitably addressed.
I refuse to be one of the people against the hero Fritz Bauer, but I cannot call myself part of his team, due to being kept afar and in the dark, and this is my regret. Hopefully, the inevitable American remake will suffice to bring Mr. Bauer into a brighter “spotlight” (cc: Tom McCarthy).