November 19, 2018

‘Fritz Bauer’: Second look at an embattled hero

It is unusual that two important German films focused on the same protagonist have been released within months of each other, the more so since the central character is a Jewish homosexual who died 48 years ago.

That man, Fritz Bauer, was the post-World War II attorney general of Hesse, the German state that includes Frankfurt as its largest city. Bauer used his position as a springboard to force a reluctant German government and people to face the crimes of the war and the Holocaust.

In the first of the two films, “The Labyrinth of Lies,” Bauer struggles for a decade to push the German government to put on trial the men (and women) who kept the Auschwitz death camp running.

The period covered by the second movie, “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” precedes the Auschwitz trials and deals with the more widely known pursuit and capture of Adolf Eichmann, the SS colonel who kept the trains running to the concentration camps, even against the orders of his boss, Heinrich Himmler. (The film’s German title translates more accurately as “The State, or Government, vs. Fritz Bauer,” and refers to the constant opposition to Bauer from former Nazis who retained high posts in postwar “democratic” West Germany.)

Bauer was born in Germany and was embarked on a promising career as a judge when Hitler came to power and kicked all Jews off the bench.

It didn’t help Bauer that he considered himself primarily an atheist and German socialist, so he emigrated first to Denmark and then, after the German invasion, escaped in the boatlift to Sweden.

Following the defeat of the Third Reich, Bauer returned to Germany and was named attorney general for Hesse. The Germans were in general quite unenthusiastic about the return of their one-time “fellow citizens of the Mosaic faith,” fearing that they would seek revenge for the suffering inflicted by their former countrymen and go as far as to demand return of their homes and businesses.

Bauer, powerfully portrayed by veteran German actor Burghart Klaussner, certainly identified more as a German than a Jew, was not out for revenge, but sought another goal: To identify the worst Nazi perpetrators and to try them before German courts — not so much as punishment but as a lesson to the new, and hopefully more democratic, second and third generations of postwar Germans.

After the German defeat, many top Nazis committed suicide or were put on trial at Nuremberg, while others, including Eichmann, escaped abroad, assuming new identities and living underground.

Bauer was one of the first to go after Eichmann, but knowing that the post-war German intelligence service was riddled with former Nazis who would likely tip off the fugitive Eichmann, Bauer turned for help to Israel’s Mossad, even at the risk of being charged with treason.

The Mossad proved quite skeptical about Bauer’s information, until he got a break — he received a letter from a German living in Argentina whose daughter was going out with a boy he believed to be the son of Adolf Eichmann.

The rest is history, including the capture and trial of Eichmann in Israel – not in Germany, as Bauer had hoped — and it was not until 10 years after Bauer’s death, in 1968, that documents surfaced detailing his major contribution to Eichmann’s capture.

One of the film’s sub-themes is Bauer’s homosexuality as well as that of his most loyal assistant, Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld). The Hitler regime had put into effect draconian laws punishing homosexuality, which remained on the books of the post-war German government. 

The threat of prosecution and punishment opened Bauer to blackmail, but neither that risk nor repetitive death threats deterred him.

Lars Kraume, the film’s director, is, at 43, part of the third post-war generation, which, Bauer hoped, would face head-on the guilt of their elders and turn Germany into a truly democratic society.

One of the box office strengths of his film, Kraume said in a phone interview, is its use of a favorite Hollywood theme: the lone guy battling the forces of evil or indifference.

Kraume said he dislikes German films that, like the TV hit “Generation War,” show a few inhumane Nazis on top misleading the otherwise good and suffering citizenry. Equally, he will not make graphic Holocaust films, saying, “I don’t want German actors parading around in Nazi uniforms or wearing the garb of concentration camp prisoners.” His film takes place after Germany’s defeat, so while there were government officials who had been or were ideologically Nazis, nobody still wore Nazi uniforms — which were in any case illegal —and, of course, no survivors still wore concentration camp garb.

In his next project, Kraume will continue his exploration of post-war Germany, but this time in the eastern part of the divided country under Communist rule. The planned film, titled “The Silent Classroom” (no release date yet) is based on an actual incident in the 1950s, following the Hungarian revolt against Soviet rule, when a group of German students in a high school near Berlin decided to put into practice the vaunted “socialist solidarity” by holding a minute of silence to honor the victims of the uprising.

This gesture so upset the East German government that it sent the country’s Minister of Education to confront the class and demand the names of the ringleaders. In the face of the students’ silence, the minister disbanded the entire class shortly before graduation, which was followed by the defection of the students to West Germany.

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” opens Aug. 19 at Laemmle’s Royal Theater in West Los Angeles, Town Center in Encino and Playhouse in Pasadena, as well as the Edwards Westpark in Irvine.