Among other things, this is a movie llustrating to me how we can watch utterly different movies, because I came back from viewing it enthusiastically, googled reviews, found that most German reviewers were also enthused but the one English language review from when the movie was shown at the film festival in Toronto this year was scathing (to the point of willfully misconstructing what was actually shown on screen, thought I when reading it). However, in my own review I'll try to keep my impressions of the movie separate from a few remarks re: the English language review (which was by the Hollywood Reporter).
First of all, a word about the title and the history: this is on of the cases where a good translation actually loses one point the movie makes. The literal translation would have been "The State versus Fritz Bauer", but that's not how you phrase it in English, I know. However given the content of the movie (very much a J'Accuse
about the 1950s German justice system) it would have been more fitting. So, who was Fritz Bauer? You can read a short biographical article about him here
. To put even more briefly: German-Jewish, started out as young Social Democrat at the eve of the Weimar Republic, spent a brief time in a camp right at the beginning but got out and emigrated to Denmark, returned post Third Reich to Germany, ended up District Attorney of Hessen, key figure in tracking down Adolf Eichmann (though this became known only a decade after his death - I'll get to the reason why later), key figure and primary mover of the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of the 1960s. The 1950s German justice system, like the 1950s German police forces, had a depressing (though unsurprising) lot of old Nazis in it; Fritz Bauer was one of the few exceptions, and not just an exception but an heroic figure who tirelessly strove against the general 1950s Let's-brush-it-under-the-carpet-and-move-o
n attitude and made the 1960s start of what we call Vergangenheitsbewältigung
in German - i.e. confrontation with (specifically the Nazi) past - possible.
He was also gay. This didn't just make him a target for the Nazis in a third capacity (in addition to being a Social Democrat and a Jew), but continued to make him a target in the 1950s, where the infamous paragraph 175 of German law (which hadn't been created by the Nazis, it was invented in 1872, but they had
made it even worse by outlawing even mutual masturbation between two males) was still in full effect. (Sidenote: the paragraph in its entirety wasn't abolished until 1994, though it was reformed in 1969, which got rid of the Nazi addendums, and even more altered in 1973, at which point "only"' underage gay sex remained illegal until 1994. This is why "a 175" for decades was slang for "homosexual"; the term has gone out of use entirely by now.)
Now another movie might have treated Bauer's sexuality as a side issue, or eliminated it entirely, while presenting a conventional "early setback, eventual triumph at court" feelgood dramatic structure. Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer
, however, not only makes this aspect an important point but also makes its most important supporting character, the young state attorney Karl Angermann, gay as well. Now Angermann is fictional, or rather, a composite of various young attorneys working for Bauer, but I think inventing him was fully dramatically justified. Not solely because it relieves Fritz Bauer (who during his exile in Denmark had trouble with the Danish police for picking up male prostitutes a couple of times, but in post war Germany seems to have lived celibate) from being the only gay character (and thus having to represent all), but it creates situations where being gay in 1950s Germany can be discussed believably. Not to mention it gives us a movie whose main characters are gay without being involved with each other but are busy striving to bring Nazis to justice. Can you think of another example? And the mentor/protegé relationship that developes between Bauer and Angermann is affectionate, great to watch and hits all my loyalty buttons.
Another out of the expected choice the movie makes is not to focus on the 1960s Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, i.e. Bauer's greatest hour. (There's another German movie released earlier this year who deals with the Auschwitz trials, Im Labyrinth des Schweigens
.) Instead, it focuses on the hunt-for-Eichmann 1950s years. Fritz Bauer understandably and probably correctly suspected that if he told the BKA (our version of the FBI) about where Eichmann was once he'd gotten a key lead, they'd warn him. (70% of the BKA in the 1950s were old Nazis; the first head of the BKA who'd never been a Nazi but had been a leftist in his youth instead was Horst Herold, who didn't get appointed until 1971, not coincidentally by Willy Brandt, himself a former exile Social Democrat like Bauer had been, who was dead by then.) So Bauer contacted the Mossad instead, which was technically treason (i.e. for a government official to conspire with a foreign government's secret service). However, he also planned to push for extradition once Eichmann had been captured because he wanted to put Eichmann on trial in Germany. Not solely because of Eichmann himself, but because of the need to confront all the former Nazis Eichmann would name with their past and to destroy the 1950s lie that it had been solely Hitler and a few dedicated followers who'd been responsible. No big spoiler to say this wasn't how it worked out historically. So the movie ends on an ambigous note for Bauer: one of his most important goals - finding Adolf Eichmann and bringing him to justice - has been accomplished, but not in the way he hoped it would be; he's still surrounded by a lot of smug former Nazis, and while he has managed to reach some young people with his exhortation to confront the past in order to create a better Germany, he gets hate mail and death threats from others on a regular basis. ( And something spoilery for the movie though not history also happened. )
So instead of providing its hero with a conventional triumph at the end, the film sees his heroism lying in the fact that he decides to continue the struggle at a low-with-one-silver-lining point. ( Spoilerly last scene described. )
Fritz Bauer is played by Burgart Klaußner, who is fantastic in the part. Also eerily like the genuine article, complete with Swabian accent (Bauer wasn't from Hessen originally but from Württemberg); the movie has the chuzpe to open with a tv clip of real Fritz Bauer talking, and there is no suspension of disbelief necessary when we meet Klaußner!Fritz Bauer next. His appearance isn't prettified like so many historical characters are when played by actors; he's an old man with stocky figure and a temper. Plus, you know, it's not paranoia when they're really after you. (Just imagine being a Jewish survivor getting hate mail and death threats in 1950s Germany. In case you're wandering why Bauer ever came back or why once he realised what it would be like he didn't emigrate - and you can read the question on the face of the Mossad guys once he contacts them -: he was a patriot in the best sense of the term, someone for whom patriotism didn't mean glorification of one's country at the expense of others but the type of love that wants the country to become better which can only happen via acknowledging and atoning for the horrors of the past.) Bauer is prickly for the best of reasons, and has hours of depression, but his few attachments are fierce, and Klaußner does such a lot with his facial expression alone. Karl Angermann is played by Ronald Zehrfeld, who does a good job with an arc where he doesn't just struggle with his sexuality early on (he's married and Catholic) but also with how to be a decent human being when he has to represent a justice system which is directed against people of his own orientation. (Early in the movie, he's the state attorney who has to prosecute in a 175 case; that's when he first very carefully asks Fritz Bauer for advice.) Our two main villains, Gebhard the BKA guy and Kreidler the state attorney, are played by Jörg Schüttauf and Sebastian Blomberg respectively. More about them when I address the criticism by the English language review, but when I say "main villains" I have to add immediately that the movie makes it very clear they're but two of many and the entire system is (still) largely rotten. It also never loses sight of the larger context: in the later 1950s, Adenauer era Germany wasn't just emerging as an economic power again due to the Wirthschaftswunder
but was seen as an essential part of NATO in the Cold War. The US was extremeliy uninterested in destabilizing Adenauer's government, which contained one very prominent former Nazi, Hans Globke (he who wrote the commentary of the Nuremberg Race Laws). Thus, the interest in tracking down Eichmann, Bormann et al (or to prosecute the less prominent but no less vile people still active and working) was at an all time low not solely within the Adenauer government but also by the Allies. (By anyone other than Israel, really.) It's that indifference even more than the occasional hate mail which makes life so hard for Fritz Bauer, who is haunted by the one time in his life as a young man where he bowed to tyranny (signing a subjugation letter in order to get out of that camp, which was then published by the Nazi press).
Female characters: not many: Bauer is married but lives separated from his wife who remained in Denmark (their marriage in 1943 was mainly so he'd avoid deportation), so we never meet her, or his much loved sister (also still in Denmark), though we hear her on the phone when Bauer in an hour of fear and depression calls her. There's his secretary, but she doesn't get characterisation beyond "devoted secretary". And Karl Angermann's wife, who clearly is frustrated with their marriage (without knowing the truth), but doesn't screen time or characterisation beyond that, either. The state attorneys working for Bauer are all male, as are the BKA people, which sadly is historically accurate. But this isn't a movie where "does it pass the Bechdel test?" is a question that's key to its worth.
Cinematography: director Lars Krauma hails from tv, and it shows. Also he only had a tiny budget. No sweeping shots of Frankfurt,Wiesbaden or Buenos Aires, or mass scenes; he goes for the Kammerspiel
approach of small rooms and few characters, which btw works with the claustrophobic feel of 1950s Germany. Any and all 1950s pop songs are avoided in favour of jazz for the soundtrack - and three chansons in the drag bar Karl Angermann visits a couple of times later in the movie. The jazz was a smart choice, imo; it conveys Bauer's feeling of outsiderness in an determinedly "let's have our economic miracle now, shut up about the unpleasant past already" society.
And now for a brief discussion of the Hollywood Reporter
bashing review. ( Read more... )
In conclusion: I was moved and impressed by this film. I hope you'll get the chance to watch it as well.