German thriller keys on real-life Eichmann hunter

Burghart Klaussner as Fritz Bauer in ‘The People vs. Fritz Bauer,’ which opens in St. Louis on Friday.

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” opens with a short video of the real Fritz Bauer, a kindly looking white-haired old man talking about how German children should be taught all of their country’s history, good and bad. 

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” focuses on the hunt for Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi leader who played pivotal roles in the deportation of Jews and the “final solution,” by Bauer, a Jewish-German prosecutor. In 1957, Bauer secretly sought help from the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, sharing critical information that led to Eichmann’s capture.

As this German production notes, most Germans after World War II wanted to just forget the war and all that happened in it. Bauer, who returned to West Germany from Sweden after the war, was one person who was not going to let them do that.

Bauer’s hunt for Eichmann was not his only high-profile case; he also was instrumental in events that launched the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in 1963. That investigation, which brought to light what happened at the Auschwitz concentration camp, was the subject of  the film “Labyrinth of Lies,” in which Bauer was a supporting figure. In “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” the focus is on Bauer. 

The effort to capture Eichmann, who was captured in 1960 and tried and hanged in 1962, and the Auschwitz case overlapped in time, but the research on Auschwitz gets only a passing mention in this film. 

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District Attorney Bauer (Burghart Klaussner) and his office is tasked with bringing former Nazis to justice, but he faces resistance, even within his department. Indeed, several files on wanted Nazis have disappeared from his supposedly private office. 

When a letter arrives with a tip about SS Lt. Col. Eichmann, saying he is hiding in Argentina, Bauer is careful to keep the information secret. He shares it only with his boss, fellow Social Democratic party member Georg-August Zinn (Gotz Schubert), the minister-president of Hesse state. 

Zinn is sympathetic but tells Bauer that the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, charged with capturing criminals, will not help capture Eichmann because many in that organization fear that Eichmann will name other former Nazis who are working in the German government. Zinn thinks they might even tip off Eichmann so he can flee. 

Frustrated, Bauer turns to other means, including a plan to secretly ask Mossad for help capturing Eichmann — an action that carries a risk of arrest for treason in Germany — and to put him on trial in Germany. 

Two people, officer Paul Gebhardt (Jorg Schuttauf) in the federal office and ambitious prosecutor Ulrich Kreidler (Sebastian Blomberg) in Bauer’s office, are looking for a way to get rid of the troublesome Bauer. They are supposed to be helping capture Nazis like Eichmann but secretly are helping them stay hidden. 

Bauer secretly enlists the help of a more sympathetic young prosecutor in his department, Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), in his plan to bring Eichmann to trial. 

The film unfolds like a thriller, with clandestine meetings and conversations during long car rides. Twice, Bauer secretly travels to Israel to meet with Mossad officers, who have a mixed reaction to a German prosecutor asking for help, even one who is prosecuting Nazis. 

The film is well-made and has a polished look, and the acting is very good, particularly Klaussner as Bauer, who captures Bauer’s appearance, speech and mannerisms. 

Bauer was unusual in many ways. He was one of the few Jews to return to Germany and the only Nazi hunter, along with his team, in Germany. Many of the characters in this film are based on historical figures, although the young prosecutor Angermann was created for dramatic purposes. Bauer is probably a better-known figure in Germany than here, and audiences here would benefit from more background about his life. 

There are passing references to key events or people in Bauer’s work. Bauer left Germany for Denmark in 1935 and later fled the Nazis to Sweden. He returned to Germany in 1949 to see that justice prevailed for the Nazis’ victims. 

Bauer was not observant or even forthcoming about his Jewish heritage, but that did not stop anonymous anti-Semitic messages from being sent to his office, as shown in the film. As a young judge, Bauer had been active in a political party opposed to Nazis and was jailed. He and Schumacher were sent to Heuberg, one of the first concentration camps, in 1933. Bauer was released and left the country for Denmark soon after. This bit of history is mentioned but not in detail. 

In one scene, Bauer notes a picture of Rosa Luxemburg, a German leftist figure of Jewish descent, in his boss’ office, but the film doesn’t say who she was. One historical event that is in the film is Bauer’s famous appearance on German television on talk show “Heute Abend Kellerklub” (“Tonight from the Cellar Club”), explaining to younger Germans why he was pursuing justice.  

The film shows Bauer making two secret trips to Israel to meet with members of the Mossad, seeking their help in capturing Eichmann. They are interested in the information, but some are wary of dealing with a German official. In these scenes, Bauer does not mention being Jewish, and one wonders whether Mossad knew. 

While much of Bauer’s background is left unexplored, director Lars Kraume, who co-wrote the script, spotlights something else: that Bauer may have been homosexual, as he had been arrested in Denmark for visiting male prostitutes. That Bauer may have been gay becomes a major dramatic focus with the fictional character of Angermann, a closeted gay man. While Germany did still have on its books an anti-homosexual law that had been toughened under the Nazis, it is a kind of odd choice. Gay rights was not a focus of Bauer’s work, but bringing Nazis to justice was. 

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” is a good film, well-acted and with a polished look, but it missed an opportunity to be an even better one by focusing on the heart of this remarkable man’s life’s work.