German Jewish hero helped bring down Eichmann

Fritz Bauer is hardly your prototypical action hero. As portrayed by Burghart Klaussner in the minor-key historical thriller “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” the late-middle-age prosecutor resembles David Ben-Gurion without the charisma.

Like Ben-Gurion, though, Bauer is a force to be reckoned with. The rare Jew in a position of power in late 1950s Germany, the Frankfurt prosecutor general is flinty, unyielding, suspicious and fiercely private.

All those characteristics prove essential in seeking high-ranking Nazis, such as Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann, who evaded arrest and trial after World War II and vanished behind aliases in faraway lands.

Fritz Bauer (played by Burghart Klaussner) tipped off Israel’s Mossad to the whereabouts of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. photo/courtesy cohen media group

As the title suggests, the German people are uniformly arrayed against Bauer’s efforts. From the mole in his office who reports his tactics and progress to German intelligence officers (themselves ex-Nazis) to the anonymous cowards who slide death threats under his apartment door to the silent majority who simply want to bury and forget Germany’s recent past, almost nobody wants Bauer to succeed.

This material is seemingly perfect for a gripping, thinking person’s thriller in the vein of “All the President’s Men” or “The Lives of Others.” But there are no car chases, no fistfights, no shadowy figures on nocturnal side streets.

In fact, director Lars Kraume resists almost every opportunity to heighten the suspense, perhaps respecting Bauer’s character and legacy too much to make him an action hero.

Until Hollywood gets around to making “Fritz Bauer: Nazi Hunter,” Kraume’s film will have to suffice.

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” opens Friday, Aug. 26 in San Francisco and San Jose, following its recent screenings in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The winner of some impressive German Oscars — including best picture, director, screenplay and supporting actor (Ronald Zehrfeld) — the film is scheduled to open Sept. 2 in two additional Bay Area theaters, the Stonestown Twin in San Francisco and the Lark in Larkspur.

The movie takes a while to kick into gear, until Bauer receives a letter from a Buenos Aires man convinced that his daughter is dating Eichmann’s son. The prosecutor doesn’t tarry for a moment, though his toughest call is deciding whom to trust. He settles on a junior prosecutor who has his own secret.

Bauer wants more than anything to put Eichmann on trial in Germany and compel him to name countless other Nazis. He believes Germans are ready to confront both the Holocaust itself and the degree to which former Nazis have penetrated the new Federal Republic of Germany’s corridors of power and integrated into mainstream society.

A key point of “The People vs. Fritz Bauer” is that Germans were not eager to publicly revisit the systematic, state-sponsored and barbarous deeds perpetrated by the Third Reich — and probably never would have been without brave, unpopular individuals pushing it in their faces.

This is a good time to mention “Labyrinth of Lies,” Germany’s submission for the 2016 Academy Award for best foreign language film. The film, which depicted the gutsy investigations by Bauer and his associates that led to the 1963-65 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials that punctured Germany’s conspiracy of silence, did not receive a nomination.

Think of “The People vs. Fritz Bauer” as a prequel, albeit with less entertainment value and more interest in geopolitics. See, Bauer’s idea for an Eichmann trial is rebuffed by the governor (a trusted, longtime friend) on the grounds that it would jeopardize the government of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, whose secretary of state was a former Nazi, and reparations and arms deals in the works between Israel and West Germany.

So Bauer passes the Buenos Aires letter and other information on to the Mossad, and with characteristic bluntness pushes the Israelis to arrest Eichmann. Legally, Bauer is committing treason, and would be in deep trouble if his enemies were to find out.

They don’t, and his contributions to Eichmann’s capture weren’t publicly known until a decade after his death in 1968.

The film makes much of the fact that Bauer and his junior associate, Karl Angermann (Zehrfeld), were gay. Given the ruthlessness of their covert enemies, they were risking their freedom along with their reputations.

The viewer admires their courage, but there’s another aspect: As men who had done things they desperately wanted to keep secret, they must have appreciated the deep desire of former Nazis to do the same.

Perhaps. But Bauer and Angermann refused to give torturers and murderers a pass, regardless of the price they themselves paid. Now those are real action heroes.

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” opens Friday, Aug. 26 at Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and Camera 3 in San Jose. In German, Spanish and Yiddish, with English subtitles (105 minutes, unrated)

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Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.