Lars Kraume’s docudrama The People vs. Fritz Bauer could be considered a companion piece of sorts to, unexpectedly, Bryan Singer’s 2008 World War II historical thriller Valkyrie—and not just because Bauer, a crusading attorney general in post-war Germany, was instrumental in the indictment of a right-wing extremist, Otto Ernst Remer, for defamation against Claus von Stauffenberg and the other participants in the Hitler-killing plot Singer’s film chronicles. Both films attempt to generate suspense out of outcomes most of us already know: Stauffenberg’s plan failed in Valkyrie, while Fritz Bauer’s efforts to capture Adolf Eichmann, one of the Holocaust’s main architects, in The People vs. Fritz Bauer succeeded, though to not quite the degree Bauer hoped. Despite their different subjects and time-period settings, their goals are similar: to shine a heroic light on rebels who dared to defy their Nazi superiors for the sake of a better Germany.
Both are ultimately sober, tasteful affairs, memorable less for any cinematic invention than for their good intentions and the heavy import of their historical subject matter. Where The People vs. Fritz Bauer could be said to score over Valkyrie is in its more vivid characterizations. Though Singer managed to generate some real thriller tension from Stauffenberg’s quest, the characters remained bland and colorless at best, depicted as wholly devoted to the mission at hand without much inner life to call their own.
The Fritz Bauer of Kraume’s film, however, is a genuinely magnetic presence, at least in lead actor Burghart Klaussner’s interpretation. Though the screenplay, by Kraume and Olivier Guez, to some extent paints Bauer as a saint—the one litigator who was willing to swim among the former Nazis inhabiting high positions at the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation in his mission to force post-WWII Germany to confront its troubled past—Klaussner, with his reserves of dry humor, brings an introverted humanity to the figure. It doesn’t matter that Kraume and Guez, for some strange reason, wait until toward the end to reveal a piece of crucial backstory-building information about Bauer—he’s driven, in part, by his guilt over a moment during the war in which he kowtowed to the Nazis. One can sense that regret in Klaussner’s manner: the passion with which he undertakes his quest, the uncompromising toughness he maintains with many of his colleagues, the quiet anger he exudes when things don’t go his way.
Bauer isn’t the only major character in Kraume’s film. There’s also Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), a younger public prosecutor who becomes Bauer’s lone compatriot, even as Bauer risks being caught committing treason by reaching out to Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, to help catch Eichmann. But this character—apparently a composite of real-life people—is more than just a glorified cheerleader for Bauer. He exists mostly as the bedrock for the film’s other major thematic thread: Bauer’s homosexuality and the sexual intolerance that still existed in late-’50s Germany.
Early on in the film, one of Bauer’s opponents at the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, Paul Gebhardt (Jörg Schüttauf), mentions to his superior, Ulrich Kriedler (Sebastian Blomberg), that, during a period of exile in Denmark, Bauer had been caught dealing with male prostitutes. Homosexuality of that sort was, even more than a decade after the end of World War II, still harshly penalized, as the film illustrates in a scene when Angermann demands a costly penalty and a five-month prison sentence for a guy caught having sexual relations with another man. When the sentenced party’s girlfriend, Victoria (Lilith Stangenberg), approaches Angermann afterward, however, he finds himself so entranced by her that he—a married man expecting a child—visits her at a nightclub called the “Kokett.” Though he resists her advances initially, he succumbs to them during his second visit—even when he discovers that Victoria is, in fact, a man. Thus, Bauer and Angermann become compatriots in another sense: both hiding their forbidden sexual desires and only able to confide in each other about them (Bauer, for his part, is technically still married but hasn’t lived with his wife for many years now).
It’s an unfortunate measure of how discreetly Kraume handles this thread, however, that, when Victoria reveals her manliness by opening up her robe, it’s quite possible that audiences might miss the revelation altogether. This, along with the director’s wholly unremarkable cinematic technique, gives The People vs. Fritz Bauer a retrograde feel that undercuts the film’s celebration of forward-thinking rebels. As laudable as Kraume’s film intentions are, one can’t help but wonder how much better it might have been with a bit more heat and grit beyond Klaussner’s skillful projections of nobility.
Director: Lars Kraume
Writers: Lars Kraume, Olivier Guez
Starring: Burghart Klaussner, Ronald Zehrfeld, Lilith Stangenberg, Jörg Schüttauf, Sebastian Blomberg
Release Date: Aug. 19, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.