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!

Phoenix (2014)


Just one look was all it took.

Just one look was all it took.

(2014) Drama (Sundance Selects) Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Trystan Pűtter, Michael Maertens, Imogen Kogge, Felix Römer, Uwe Preuss, Valerie Koch, Eva Bay, Jeff Burrell, Nikola Kastner, Max Hopp, Megan Gay, Kirsten Block, Frank Seppeler, Daniela Holtz, Kathrin Wehlisch, Michael Wenninger, Claudia Geisler-Bading, Sofia Exss. Directed by Christian Patzold

Some people will do anything to survive, even throw the people they love under the bus. Some people will do anything for those they love, even refuse to believe they’d throw us under the bus despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Nelly Lenz (Hoss) before the war was an acclaimed singer in Berlin. However, she is part-Jewish, enough so that she is arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Before the camp is liberated, she is shot in the face by the Nazis and left for dead. Fortunately she survives but she needs reconstructive surgery on her face. Even though her surgeon tells her that making her look like she did before would be difficult, she opts to be herself rather than look like someone different.

Part of the reason for this is that she wants to be with her husband Johnny (Zehrfeld) again. However her good friend Lene Winter (Kunzendorf) tells her that her husband, who was arrested two days before Nelly was, was released hours before her own arrest and likely betrayed her to the Nazis. Nelly refuses to believe this though and goes looking for her musician husband through the rubble of Berlin – and eventually finds him in a seedy nightclub named Phoenix.

However, astonishingly, Johnny doesn’t recognize her. However, her resemblance to his wife is enough that he hatches a scheme. You see, Nelly had a sizable fortune when she was arrested, but there’s no proof of her death so Johnny can’t collect it. If he can mold this woman to be just like Nelly, she can sign for that inheritance and split it with Johnny. She agrees to the scheme, only to get close to her husband.

She’s walking a very fine line, knowing that if he discovers her true identity there could be trouble. However, she keeps doing as he says while looking into the allegations Lene brought up. The day comes when she is to reveal herself as Nelly – what will she do and how will Johnny react?

This is a brilliant bit of filmmaking by Patzold, who is becoming one of the best directors in Europe. He sets a mood of tension and keeps it going throughout the movie, not so much that you feel that if it isn’t broken you’ll just explode but enough so that you feel a lovely discomfort throughout. He also has crafted a wonderful allegory of guilt and rebirth that is just as relevant now as it was during the period this is set.

His regular collaborator Nina Hoss is absolutely sensational here. A lot of critics have complained that it was slightly implausible that a husband wouldn’t recognize his wife, but clearly Nelly was deeply changed by her experiences. She is hunched over, wrapping herself in her arms as if the terror of her experience hadn’t faded even though her ordeal was over. Her performance is densely layered and is at the heart of the movie; it’s not that Zehrfeld (another frequent Patzold cast member) doesn’t do a good job, it’s just that Hoss is amazing.

The rest of the cast, like Zehrfeld, is solid, but it’s Hoss’ show. They are all a little zombified by the effects of the war; dead expressions that come from being a defeated nation, something that perhaps Americans might not understand directly. The expressions of the American soldiers are much different; we can see a clear difference between the victors and the defeated. Like just about everything else, this is subtly set so that you have to work a little bit to get the actual meaning of what Patzold is presenting to you visually. This is what makes him such a marvelous director.

The setting of a mostly destroyed Berlin is perfect; the rubble is ripe for a resurrection, and Nelly, as ruined in her own way as Berlin is, makes an excellent allegory. War destroyed a beautiful woman and a beautiful city; they both had the option of becoming anything they wanted but had to excise the demons of their past first. Berlin’s transformation would take much longer, but Nelly’s transformation was in many ways more profound.

This is a movie that succeeds on a lot of different levels, from the easily seen to the more subtle. Certainly it gives the audience a whole lot to think about. The ending, incidentally, is just about perfect, from the way it is executed, the camera angles and the expression on the faces of the actors. It wasn’t the way I expected it to end for sure, but it was the right way for it to end. The great ending is very rare these days so when one comes along, it is much appreciated.

Phoenix is a revelation, notice that here is a director who is to be reckoned with. This will likely be showing up on Netflix and other streaming services shortly – it’s American release was back in July although here in Central Florida the Enzian is reportedly considering booking it for early December – and it’s very much worth checking out once it does. Few movies will leave you as breathless as this one does especially after you consider the ending you just saw as it fades to black and are left jaw dropped and mind blown.

REASONS TO GO: High tension. Hoss’ performance is outstanding. Ending is incredibly good.
REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoss has appeared in five of Patzold’s seven films thus far.
BEYOND THE THEATER: VOD (Check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flame and Citron
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Burnt