Of two recent films about the 1960 kidnapping and trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” (2012) ponders the banality of evil, and Lars Kraume’s “The People vs. Fritz Bauer” the futility of good. In both the weighty theme overwhelms the conventional treatment.
Based on the efforts by the West German attorney general of the title to bring Eichmann back to his homeland for trial, Kraume’s film opens on a scene that would seem to confirm that such attempts to restore a moral order are doomed to failure. Passed out from wine and sleeping pills, Bauer is rescued by his chauffeur just before he drowns in his bathtub. Hostile colleagues, former Nazis, try to spin the mishap to show Bauer’s incompetence. But, played by Burghart Klaussner in a bearlike, rheumy performance, Bauer goes back to work with renewed vigor, pursuing a lead that has placed Eichmann in Buenos Aires.
From the start, Bauer’s mission to purge Germany of its Nazi past was operating at a disadvantage. A socialist rumored to be gay, he spent the war in exile in Denmark and was condemned by his opponents as a vengeful Jew. His sexuality always loomed as a potential target for his enemies. And these enemies permeated the system. Many Nazi officials had slipped back into the government after the war with the tacit approval of the United States, whose priority was sustaining its West German ally in the Cold War.
“People” presents this background information with clarity, if not grace. It has less success with the story’s melodramatic spy movie elements and a racy, latter-day “Cabaret” subplot involving homophobia, entrapment, a stuffy bourgeois marriage, and a dive called the Kokett Club. Because of the film’s earnest awkwardness, these excursions into the demimonde come off as campy.
Nonetheless, Klaussner’s powerful performance as Bauer, an irrepressible grumpus with Ben-Gurion-like hair, a chain-smoker and enthusiastic drinker who emerges from seeming crapulousness to deliver a lightning bolt of rage, snaps the picture back into focus. Eichmann never had a chance.
THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER
Directed by Lars Kraume. Written by Kraume and Olivier Guez. Starring Burghart Klaussner, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Lilith Stangenberg. At Boston Common, West Newton. 105 minutes. Rated R (some sexual content.). In German, with subtitles.