Aesthetic banality and shock tactics exacerbate the dubious moral core of Lars Kraume’s The People vs. Fritz Bauer, a middlebrow period piece that chronicles the determination of Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klauβner), district attorney of the central German state Hesse in the late 1950s, to bring criminal charges against the infamous Adolf Eichmann (Michael Schenk), one of the central architects of the Holocaust. The film positions Bauer as a mildly eccentric type whose efforts to expose and prosecute Nazis stem from both his proud Jewish heritage and altruistic interest in ridding Germany of the remnants of its catastrophic past. Yet Kraume opts for a wholly conventional presentation, both visually and structurally, that revolves around Bauer’s alternating sense of fear, determination, and defiance.
Whether tugging at his tie, shifting in the backseat of a moving car, or taking off his glasses to indicate fatigue, Bauer is presented as little more than a wily sleuth whose perseverance allowed Germany to start reckoning with its haunted past. Kraume attempts to broaden the film’s narrative by deepening both Bauer’s personal life and working relationship with the BND, Germany’s federal intelligence service, but each choice panders to contemporary social mores in an effort to bolster Bauer’s mythology as a rebellious and progressive insider who sought to change the political machine.
The former thread involves Bauer’s potential relations with male prostitutes in Copenhagen during the ’30s and with Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), a married prosecutor and protégé who lives a double life as a homosexual. Angermann brings to mind the closeted senator from Advise and Consent, but whereas Otto Preminger utilized such a figure to explore the ways social persecution irrevocably bleeds into political corruption, Kraume seeks primarily exploitive ends. That’s especially evident in a subplot involving Angermann’s sexual relationship with Victoria (Lilith Stangenberg), a stage performer who reveals, by spreading her legs, that she has a penis. The scene, catered to Angermann’s surprise and meant to shock viewers, demonstrates little about either character’s relationship to sex or one another. It’s an empty provocation, introducing potentially complex implications about Angermann’s sexuality that the film has no interest in further pursuing.
The scene also muddies The People vs. Fritz Bauer’s greater interest in the BND’s attempt to silence Bauer through threats to reveal his own homosexuality, with Kraume using a blanket theme of gay oppression as an unconvincing component of the larger issue at hand. In fact, Angermann is a fictional, composite character whose role as a Bauer’s confidant was devised for this revisionist account. Surely Kraume should be allowed such artistic license, but it’s a pity that Angermann doesn’t reveal anything meaningful about either the titular figure or the circumstances that led to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which are just beyond the film’s timeline.
Kraume’s tinkering with the historical record would be more welcome were he also shifting away from the standard biopic template, but much of the film strictly adheres to a hackneyed formal construction. Nearly every scene commences with an establishing shot, most featuring a car in motion or someone entering an office, accompanied by a note or two from the film’s defiantly nondescript soundtrack. Moreover, the televisual style of shot-reverse-shot and mostly balanced lighting produces a catatonic effect that dulls each scene’s cinematic potential. Given how little interest Kraume displays in dynamizing his images, it makes mustering any investment in his characters or revisionist plight all the more difficult.