About six weeks before his death, Ken Hanke reviewed The People vs. Fritz Bauer when it screened in May as part of the Asheville Jewish Film Festival. He loved the film, and so do I. Ken did a great job of capturing the film’s appeal — as he always did — so I wanted to include his review and follow up with a few thoughts of my own on this great film.
“Before you roll your eyes over ‘yet another movie about Nazi hunters,’ you should know that this third film in the 2016 Asheville Jewish Film Festival is something very different. The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015) is a fact-based work about the machinery behind both protecting and capturing Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. But it is probably not at all the film you expect it to be from that statement. This movie, set in 1957, is much more than that suggests. It is, in fact, the most densely layered film I have ever seen on this kind of topic. It’s not just about the hunt; it’s about the time in which it occurs. It’s about a Jewish prosecutor, Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klaussner), with secrets and issues of his own, as well as about a government still riddled with Nazi holdovers, a society that has yet to face up to the reality of Germany in WWII, etc. It tackles all these topics — and some I haven’t mentioned, such as German law in 1957 still clinging to Nazi edicts. (It’s interesting that the actual German title is The State vs. Fritz Bauer.) This is a heady stew reminiscent of espionage movies of the time in which it takes place and beautifully held together by the central performances of Klaussner and Ronald Zehrfeld (as his young assistant). If you see nothing else in this year’s festival, try to make room for this.” (Review originally published by Ken Hanke May 10, 2016.)
Now, as Ken mentioned, this movie is about more than just the hunt for Adolf Eichmann. (That aim amounts to almost a MacGuffin, as Eichmann’s fate is left to some closing captions.) Rather, this is a film about trying to do the right thing, even when at odds with a world that is indifferent at best, antagonistic at worst. The title is distinctly apropos, as the eponymous protagonist spends at least as much time dealing with the vestigial remnants of a fascist bureaucracy as he does hunting the Nazis, whom some in his government are actively supporting. It’s a moving story of overcoming insurmountable odds through what the ancient Greeks referred to as metis, the name of a Titan goddess who came to represent the quality of wisdom and cunning embodied by Odysseus.
Writer-director Lars Kraume and co-writer Olivier Guez have delivered a tight, suspenseful drama possessing nascent neo-noir tendencies and dealing with its subject matter efficiently and adroitly. While last month’s Anthropoid was a slave to historical accuracy (to its narrative detriment), The People vs. Fritz Bauer knows how to dramatize in the right places. Sure, an embarrassing incident involving a Mossad agent’s untied shoelace is left out of this depiction of Eichmann’s capture, and the significant involvement of famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal is overlooked. But, unless you’re more than passingly familiar with this specific chapter in postwar history, you won’t get hung up on the incongruities, as the film uses artistic license to its substantial narrative benefit.
Ken rightfully called attention to Klausner’s performance, as it is the highlight of an already solid film. With white hair teased out like Dr. Mabuse, Klausner carries himself with a combination of strength and vulnerability that brings to mind Spencer Tracy, a comparison few actors could earn in my book. His capacity to transition convincingly between extreme subtlety and sudden (yet appropriate) vitriol puts his turn as Dr. Bauer among my favorite performances of 2016 thus far.
In short, The People vs. Fritz Bauer is a film not to be missed. Excellent direction and writing, combined with a compelling story and moving performances, make this one of the best films to play in Asheville this summer. Add in some particularly prescient social commentary (and an unexpected LGBT angle) and you have a film that should play to crowds outside of its various niches — and one I sincerely hope will find an audience in Asheville. Rated R for some sexual content.
Opens Friday at the Grail Moviehouse