'The People vs. Fritz Bauer' ('Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer'): Locarno Review

Courtesy of Festival del Film Locarno
Audiences lose.

Burghart Klaussner and Ronald Zehrfeld star in this historical drama about the German-Jewish attorney general who hunted down Adolf Eichmann.

A Jewish attorney general in 1957 Germany who wants to hunt down Adolf Eichmann, the infamous "architect of the Holocaust" — clearly, that’s a story that deserves its own movie. But the best that can be said about the German historical drama The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer) is that it leaves plenty of room for improvement (a German TV movie about the same subject is reportedly already in the works). Though blessed with a spectacular true story and character to work from, director and co-screenwriter Lars Kraume — whose curriculum is littered with episodes of the ever-popular German TV procedural series Tatort — fails to breathe much life into the stuffy, overly complex enumeration of the historical facts that led to Eichmann's arrest (or rather, kidnapping). But what’s much worse is the fictionalized take on Bauer’s private life, with Kraume actually embarrassing himself with an entirely unconvincing subplot involving the attorney’s alleged homosexuality that’s handled in a way that suggests all gay men recognize each other by their fancy socks (yes, really).

Scheduled to be released locally on Oct. 1, the project will struggle to match the numbers of Giulio Ricciarelli’s vastly superior 2014 film Labyrinth of Lies, which recounts the story of the young (fictionalized) public prosecutor who initiated the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trails and was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics in Toronto last year. (The late Gert Voss played Bauer in that film.)  

After a brief opening that features archive footage of the real Bauer, the film proper kicks off with the protagonist (Burghart Klaussner, actually some 10 years older than Bauer was in 1957) almost drowning in his own bathtub. A suicide attempt? His superiors (Sebastian Blomberg, Joerg Schuettauf) see the event as a possible chance to get rid of him, since as the Attorney General of the State of Hessen, he’s been trying to locate Adolf Eichmann, one of the men of the Nazi regime behind the "Final Solution" for the Jews, so he can be brought to justice. What’s making the German authorities so scared is the fact that Eichmann — should he be found and caught — could name the names of countless Nazi collaborators, many of whom ended up working for the German government and secret services right after the war. So a lot of people working for the state had a vested interest in censoring the country’s own past in order to protect themselves (the film’s German title more explicitly references this idea, as it literally translates as "The State vs. Fritz Bauer," which seems immediately intriguing if you know that Bauer was a State Attorney General).

This is the rather straightforward underlying motor of the story, with the higher-ups trying to do what they can to find fault with Bauer so they can get rid of him and Bauer trying his hardest to bring the man to justice, not out of revenge but as a way to educate the German people about what happened in their own country. Besides the suggestion he might have tried to commit suicide, possible vulnerabilities of Bauer include — in the film version at least — the fact he might have been homosexual, as suggested by his (historically documented) arrests in Denmark, where he lived in exile in the 1930s, for picking up male hustlers.

But Kraume, who’s credited for the screenplay alongside French author and journalist Olivier Guez (whose A History of Jews in Germany Since 1945 dedicated a chapter to Bauer), tends to obscure what should be a very basic Bauer-versus-State template with socio-political and historical details that obscure more often than elucidate his points. With so much time dedicated to the minutiae of the search, and the possible socio-political fallouts, the antagonists, especially, fail to come to life, so it feels like Bauer is fighting cardboard cutouts rather than actual people, which makes him and his struggle less interesting.

But the film's most problematic character isn't even one of his state-employed enemies but rather Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), a composite figure who is a younger, Catholic colleague of Bauer’s who has been married for two years but — audiences, pay attention! — has no children. The film treats Karl’s presumed attraction to men as a way to create suspense or surprise, especially when it builds to an excruciating sequence in a club during which a supposedly female character (Lilith Stangenberg) opens her legs wide and does Sharon Stone one better. It’s clearly played for shock value in a film that contains barely a bare buttock otherwise, which makes the shot both distasteful and hopelessly retrograde (The Crying Game handled it with much more class over 20 years ago).

While the nightclub singer and prostitute is so heavily sexualized there’s no room for any actual personality traits (the film doesn't even seem to know or care about the difference between gay and transgender people), Bauer is notably asexual, despite a big-cheese’s toe-curling declaration that "even monks need to screw sometimes." If you’ve decided to talk about your main character’s sexuality in your film, why not show him either enjoying it or struggling with it ("lewd activities" between males were technically forbidden in Germany until 1994)? 

The way Kraume uses the shared same-sex proclivities of Angermann and Bauer to bring them closer together feels outdated, with their gayness more of a plot convenience than an innate part of their character and the supposedly ambiguous relationship between the duo more often tedious rather than filled with tension or questions. It doesn’t help that The People seems to suggest the height of queerness is wearing something else than unicolored socks; in a film that wants to be about the weight of history, the importance of openness about past crimes and people that were persecuted and suppressed, that crutch is practically perverse and borderline offensive.

Though saddled with an unfortunate hairpiece that makes him look like a middle-aged man dressed up like a cartoonish mad professor for Halloween, Klaussner (The White Ribbon, Good Bye Lenin!) gives a dignified performance, allowing glimpses of intellectual rigor, rage and steadfast determination to escape from under his frequently solemn expressions. He even manages to make some of the incongruous, Bruce Willis-esque one-liners — "Do you want justice or a new kitchen?" — fly, which is no small achievement. If the main character seems to contain any life, it is thanks to his performance more than the writing.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Zehrfeld. He’s a consummate actor who comes off a fantastic year, in which he wowed in films as different as Phoenix, Beloved Sisters, Inbetween Worlds and The Kings Surrender. But here, he seems hopelessly lost, no doubt because Kraume had no clear handle on his character either and no idea how he relates to the other characters or the film’s general ideas and themes. 

The film’s handful of scenes set in Argentina most clearly betray Kraume’s background in television, with their cheap staging and tendency to prettify foreign locales, though generally, it would be hard to call the film cinematic in any way. Esther Walz's costumes are all dark and nondescript, though unfortunately the same can't be said of the film’s trumpet-driven score, which infuses the film with a jazzy vibe that feels thoroughly out of place, though I guess it at least complements the froufrou socks. 

Production companies: Zero One Film, Terz  Film, WDR, HR, Arte

Cast: Brughart Klaussner, Ronald Zehrfeld, Lilith Stangenberg, Joerg Schuettauf, Sebastian Blomberg

Director: Lars Kraume

Screenplay: Lars Kraume, Olivier Guez

Producer: Thomas Kufus

Director of photography: Jens Harant

Production designer: Cora Pratz

Costume designer: Esther Walz

Editor: Barbara Gies

Music: Christoph M. Kaiser, Julian Maas

Casting: Nessie Nesslauer, Nicole Schmied

Sales: Beta Cinema

No rating, 105 minutes

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