The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer)


In the back alleys of postwar West Germany, things could get pretty dicey.

In the back alleys of postwar West Germany, things could get pretty dicey.

(2015) True Life Drama (Cohen Media Group) Burghart Klauẞner, Ronald Zehrfeld, Michael Schenk, Sebastian Blomberg, Jörg Schüttauf, Stefan Gebelhoff, Pierre Shrady, Gȏtz Schubert, Laura Tonke, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Daniel Krauss, Rüdiger Klink, Carolin Stähler, Daniel Krauss, Nikolai Will, Stephan Grossmann, Lavinia Kiessler. Directed by Lars Kraume

 

Few nations have committed atrocities on as large a scale as Nazi Germany did. Following the war and the fall of Hitler, it is understandable that the divided Germany would want to put their deeds behind them, but in fact it was taken to extremes with the Germans often refusing to acknowledge that such atrocities took place – or that those who committed them still roamed free.

Fritz Bauer (Klauẞner) wasn’t one of those. A lawyer of Jewish descent, he had spent time in a concentration camp early on before being deported to Denmark. After the war, he returned home to Frankfurt to resume his career, rising to the position of State Attorney General. One of his obsessions was to see Adolph Eichmann (Schenk), one of the architects of the Final Solution, brought to justice.

Bauer was not a charismatic man but he was a dogged one. Assisted by the equally dogged Karl Angermann (Zehrfeld) who was one of the few operatives in his office he could actually trust – the others either were disinterested in is cause or were actively opposed to it, reporting his moves to higher-ups who had ties to the Nazi regime that might be revealed if former Nazis were brought to trial – he discovered that Eichmann was living under an assumed name in Argentina.

Frustrated at every turn by a government that was patronizing or actively opposing his attempts to bring Eichmann to justice, Bauer would do something that would be considered treason: he informed Israeli’s intelligence agency Mossad of Eichmann’s whereabouts and misled people in his own office as to where that was so that they couldn’t warn Eichmann before the Israeli’s could set up an ambush and take Eichmann out of South America. However, even the Israelis would break Bauer’s heart.

This is a stark, gripping movie that reminded me strongly of the Cold War spy thrillers of the 50s through the 70s, with double and triple crosses going on and a pervasive feeling of paranoia which wasn’t entirely unjustified. Klauẞner who is one of Germany’s leading actors, wears a wig that can only be called Bernie Sanders-esque and resembles one of those eccentric professors who stalks the room while he lectures. Klauẞner wisely doesn’t over-emote, retaining Bauer’s professorial demeanor but showing him to have a will of iron.

Zehrfeld, whom some might remember for his performance in Phoenix is equally good. Angermann looks at Bauer as a mentor and a father figure. Both men have skeletons in their closet that are similar in nature and both men are under pressure to drop the Eichmann pursuit or risk having their closet doors opened. Zehrfeld, a family man with a promising career, is caught between bringing justice to a monster who murdered millions or saving himself by denouncing his mentor and allowing the monster to go free. It’s not an easy choice and Zehrfeld makes us feel Angermann’s anguish.

It should be said that Angermann is actually a composite character – he didn’t exist as portrayed here. It should also be said that Kraume who also co-wrote the movie treats some rumors as fact and fudges a bit on the history. Still, much of what is seen here comes from Bauer’s own journals and reports which only recently became public knowledge. It also brought to light the difficulty in overcoming his own government, although it would only be a few years later that the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials would become reality, again due to Bauer’s persistence.

I found the movie gripping, if a bit slow-moving. Those with limited attention spans might squirm some during the interminable backroom deal brokering and strolls through the streets of Frankfurt, smoking thoughtfully. The subject matter is so fascinating and the performance so riveting that this should definitely be under your consideration to see forthwith as one of the best movies released so far this year.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Klauẞner and Zehrfeld in particular were intense. Nicely captures the feeling of a Cold War-era thriller. Nicely illustrates the tunnel vision that nations possess.
REASONS TO STAY: Some liberties were taken with historical fact. A little bit drab.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and a whole lot of smoking going on.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It garnered the most German Film Awards (a.k.a. the Lolas) nominations this year with nine, with six of the nominations earning wins including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Zehrfeld).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Labyrinth of Lies
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle commences!

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You Don’t Mess With the Zohan


You Don't Mess With the Zohan

Adam Sandler: Deadly but cute!

(2008) Comedy (Columbia) Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Nick Swardson, Rob Schneider, Kevin Nealon, Lainie Kazan, Ido Mosseri, Dave Matthews, Michael Buffer, Charlotte Rae, Chris Rock, Shelley Berman, George Takei, Bruce Villanch, Mariah Carey. Directed by Dennis Dugan

 

There are those who are of the persuasion that silliness is next to godliness, and Adam Sandler is I do believe one of those sorts. If it’s funny, it’s money and Sandler is a very rich man. When he releases a new movie, people take notice and so it was when this was released in theaters. Was it worth the notice though?

Zohan (Sandler) is the finest counter-terrorist agent in Israel. He is handsome, brave, an amazing fighter and completely impervious to pain (he drops piranhas down his bathing trunks to prove this point). He is beloved in his home country, particularly by the ladies. He is respected by his leaders. He is feared by the enemies of his country. He has it all.

Except what he really wants – to be a hairdresser. Tired of the fights with his nemesis the Phantom (Turturro), he stages his own death and arranges to ship himself to New York City in a container of dogs. He finds a place to stay and gets himself a job as a stylist in the salon of Dalia (Chriqui) which he brings much success to due to his practice of having sex with the older clients who tell their friends and so on and so on.

However a greedy developer (Buffer) wants to mow down the shops on the street – both Arab and Jewish – to put up a mall. Holy Hummus Batman – can the traditional enemies work together to stop this nefarious plot and return to hating each other in harmony?

This was Sandler’s 2008 summer comedy and as you can see by the box office numbers below that it did pretty well, but still this movie isn’t considered one of his classics. For one thing, it’s pretty scattered in terms of plot – the movie kinda meanders along and some of the plot points seem forced to me.

The physical comedy works pretty nicely, although there are some CGI bits (like the piranha in the pants gag) that are appalling. When the Zohan and the Phantom fight, they are almost super-powered which as action movie spoof might work well (think the Scary Movie films) but in a non-spoof comedy look kind of dumb. To be fair, some of those fight scenes are clever.

Sandler is one of the most likable comedy stars in Hollywood, right up there with Tim Allen and Kevin James. He has to be at his most charming in order to hold the movie together, particularly since he is purported to be catnip to women of every age and gender. Sandler has always been easy on the eyes (or so I’m told by those who have a better appreciation of male beauty than I do) and so that at least isn’t much of a stretch.

Turturro was terrific with Sandler in Deeds and so he is again here. The Phantom is a somewhat distorted but ultimately recognizable reflection of Zohan if you don’t mind crazy funhouse mirrors. Turturro is an able comic who sometimes doesn’t get his due in the business; I thought he was one of the bright spots in a movie that needed them.

There are those who will grouse that the Arab-Israeli conflict is nothing to make jokes about; for my money, the more that we joke about something, the more human it becomes and the more human something becomes, the better equipped we are to deal with it. I liked the concept of the film enough, although the execution left something to be desired. Had Sandler and co-writers Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel elected to make something that relied less on being outrageous and more on being funny, they really would have been on to something.

WHY RENT THIS: Sandler is as charming as ever and Turturro makes a fine foil.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is a bit unfocused and too many bits don’t work. May go a little bit over-the-top for some in terms of crudity.

FAMILY VALUES:  The humor can be crude and a lot of it is sexually-oriented. There’s also quite a bit of foul language involved and yes, nudity in an Adam Sandler film.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie had actually been written back in 2000 but pre-production was halted after 9-11due to the terrorist in New York theme for seven years.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Surprisingly, the Blu-Ray is feature-packed. There are featurettes on Sandler’s stunt doubles, on the Arab-Israeli conflict , on singer Dave Matthews (who has a small part in the film) and on the celebrity cameo appearances. There’s a pop-up translator that takes some of Zohan’s dialogue and translates it as well as a montage of girls in bikinis who appeared in the film for those inclined to perve on such things.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $199.9M on an $90M production budget; the movie made money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Devil Inside

The Debt (2010)


The Debt

Sam Worthington takes aim.

(2010) Spy Thriller (Miramax/Focus) Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds, Jesper Christensen, Marton Csokas, Romi Aboulafia, Brigitte Kren, Istvan Goz, Morris Perry, Jonathan Uziel, Iren Bordan, Katya Tompos. Directed by John Madden

The thing about the truth is that it is rarely what we think it is. Often we are told one thing and the truth is quite another. Sometimes knowing that truth doesn’t set us free however; sometimes the knowledge of truth shackles us for a lifetime.

Rachel Singer (Mirren) is a retired Mossad agent who bears the scars of her vocation both literally and figuratively. Her daughter Sarah (Aboulafia) has authored a book about her career, particularly concerning a daring raid into East Berlin that was performed by a three-person team in 1965 in order to retrieve a Nazi war criminal. Although it didn’t end up well, Rachel emerged from the raid as a national heroine.

In 1966, Rachel (Chastain) was the junior member of the team which included team leader Stephan Gold (Csokas) and David Peretz (Worthington). They are in East Berlin to extract a former Nazi War criminal – Dieter Vogel (Christensen), the so-called Surgeon of Birkenau who performed hideous experiments on Jewish concentration camp residents and bring him to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes.

He is masquerading as an ordinary OB-GYN, so Rachel and David pose as a man and wife unable to have to date. The plan is set up meticulously with an escape route marked for them. However the plan misfires and they are forced to bring their prisoner back to their East German apartment while they try to find a way back home. Unfortunately, Vogel manages to escape his bonds and after a fierce struggle in which Rachel is scarred for life, she shoots him dead rather than let him escape.

But was that the whole truth? When Rachel’s ex-husband Stephan (Wilkinson) tells her that information has surfaced that puts everything she’s built in her life in jeopardy, she will be forced to take a journey to make things right, not only for herself but for her daughter, her team and her country.

John Madden is best known for directing Shakespeare in Love but he does pretty well in the taut spy thriller genre. There are some scenes that literally had me on the edge of my seat, cliche as that might sound. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has quite a cast to work with.

Mirren is one of the top actresses in the world at the moment and one of the finest of all time when all is said and done. She is one of the main reasons to see this – as always her performance is letter perfect. She plays Rachel as a woman haunted by that secret and embittered by the way her life has turned out. Her only saving grace is her daughter Sarah who is now getting sucked into the lie.

The rest of the cast is pretty impressive as well. Chastain, who has had a couple of exceptional performances already this summer in The Tree of Life and The Help adds a third (although this movie was shot well before the other two). Her character is as naive as Mirren’s version is worldly and jaded. She is certainly flawed, but her dedication is unquestioned.

Worthington gets a role here that plays to his strengths as an actor and runs with it. His David is cold, shut-off and haunted by the specter of the War in which is family was decimated. He is guarded and closed off, which Worthington can do well.

Wilkinson is another veteran actor who has a complex role to fill and he does it admirably. His character is crafty, devious and infectiously charming while Hinds, who plays the older David, is thoroughly haunted and destroyed, his expression one of a man who doesn’t expect anything in life but misery.

The problem with the movie is two-fold. For one thing, the 1966 and 1997 versions of the characters don’t really resemble each other and when it comes to Csokas and Worthington, it is easy to confuse them with Wilkinson and Hinds (who resembles Csokas more than Worthington). For the record, here are the correct pairings: Wilkinson (1997) and Csokas (1966) as Stephan, Hinds (1997) and Worthington (1966) as David and of course Mirren (1997) and Chastain (1966) as Rachel.

It also must be said the ending is a little bit hoary, although I must admit there was at least some tension in the scene, enough that it made it entertaining. The movie itself harkens back to the cold war thrillers of the 60s in many ways, although I have to admit it’s a pale echo of some of the better examples of the genre. Still, given the performances and the tension, I can recommend it without reservation for most audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Great cast. Some well-thought out taut moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending is unsatisfying. Not easy to match 1997 versions of 1966 characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of two movies that was distributed by Miramax whose release was delayed due to the purchase of the company by Colony Capital. The company eventually made a distribution deal with Focus.

HOME OR THEATER: Works just as well at home as it does in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Columbiana