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Film Review

The People vs. Fritz Bauer

On May 8, 1945, with Germany's surrender, the war in Europe ended. Four Allied countries occupied Germany: Russia, France, Great Britain, and the United States, each with its own zone of control. The German and Austrian Nazi government was abolished. Amid widespread hunger, shortages of everything, and the near-total destruction of many cities, the Nazi governments of Germany and Austria were abolished. As it was vital to get those countries functioning again, the Allies began the process of reconstruction. Almost immediately they recognized that many of those qualified to run the government, industry, schools and services were themselves former Nazis or belonged to Nazi organizations. Although deNazification had begun, the sheer number of former Nazis prevented prosecution of any but the highest ranking officials. About 10% of the entire population were party members; in some fields, such as judges and attorneys, the numbers reached 90%. Adding to the problem was the onset of the Cold War; cooperation between the Russians and the Allies soon stopped. Ordinary Germans, for the most part, were only dimly aware of the Holocaust; many believed the accounts of the death camps had been exaggerated.

Fritz Bauer, a German-Jewish attorney, had spent time in an early concentration camp because of his Socialist affiliation. Released in 1935, he fled first to Denmark, and later to Sweden when the Germans attempted to round up the Danish Jews. Bauer returned to Germany after the war and was appointed as a district attorney in Frankfurt for war crimes. He had been assembling evidence to try Auschwitz guards and camp officials, as well as searching for Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was a high ranking SS officer who was a key figure in implementing the Holocaust. In fact many historians call him the prime architect of the Holocaust. He organized the ghettos in occupied countries, administered deportations to death camps, and personally supervised the roundup of the Hungarian Jews. It was clear that Eichmann had fled Germany but no one seemed to know where.

Locating and trying former Nazis was not high among the West German government's priorities, and was further hampered by the sheer numbers of ex-Nazis in the judiciary and intelligence services. (A case in point was Conrad Adenauer, the Chancellor of West Germany in the 1950's, who appointed Hans Globe, author of the anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws, as his closest assistant.) The prosecution of former Nazis was not high on the US's priorities, because of the fear that publicizing their presence in the government would weaken the West German (and hence the American) effort in the Cold War. As it turned out, both the CIA and the German intelligence service knew Eichmann was in Argentina, although neither knew his specific location nor his new name.

One day Bauer received a letter from a man in Argentina claiming that Eichmann's son was involved with his daughter. Bauer wanted the German government to have Argentina arrest Eichmann, and extradite him to Germany to stand trial for murder. Thus begins a chain of events that ultimately led to Eichmann's capture, but not by Germany. Lars Kraume, a German television writer and director, has just made The People vs Fritz Bauer, a riveting film about Fritz Bauer and those last few years of the search for Eichmann. He portrays Bauer as a grumpy, isolated man, but fearless and totally dedicated to the concept of Germany a a true democracy. Bauer correctly understood that a democracy cannot take root in a country without an accounting for the evil done in its name. Although he has a number of attorneys working for him, one, Angermann, is dedicated and sympathetic to Bauer's quest. But Bauer has a secret, and it turns out that Angermann has several of his own. The film hews closely to historical fact except that Angermann is a composite character. Through a number of surprising twists, the director creates a level of tension unexpected in an historical account. The acting is first rate. Bauer is played by Burghart Klaussner (Bridge of Spies), who bears an uncanny resemblance to David Ben-Gurion. Shot entirely in black and white, the film has a vintage character. Since the predominant language here is German, virtually all dialogue is subtitled.

The People vs. Fritz Bauer nails the atmosphere and setting of the 1950's in West Germany, just beginning the process of normalization. I was very impressed with this film. It's rare for a good film to accurately portray historical events, much less those of the Holocaust. The People vs. Fritz Bauer has already won a number of German film awards and may be the German nominee for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Just opened at Landmark's Opera Plaza and the Camera 3 (San Jose). Running time: 105 minutes. The uncannily perfect pairing would be with Labyrinth of Lies, a recent German film about the same period with a similar storyline.

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