The line between patriotism and treason is a fuzzy one in “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” a German drama and almost-thriller about the prosecutor who helped bring Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, to justice.
Bauer was a Jewish-born civil servant who opposed Hitler’s rise in the 1930s and then emigrated to Denmark to escape the Third Reich. He returned to Germany after the war and became a district attorney with a sideline as a Nazi hunter — although not a very successful one, at least not at first.
In director Lars Kraume’s film, Bauer (Burghart Klaussner) is already weary from the fight. Sporting an Einstein-like shock of white hair and horn-rim glasses, he wheezes and coughs as he berates his underlings for their lack of progress in finding fugitive war criminals, knowing full well that the intelligence apparatus of the new Federal Republic is packed with former SS officers who have no interest in seeing Eichmann name names on the witness stand.
So when he gets a tip that Eichmann is hiding out in Argentina, Bauer decides to turn to the only ally he can trust to get his man: Mossad, the Israeli spy agency. It’s an act of espionage that could land him in prison.
There’s some mildly suspenseful cloak-and-dagger stuff involving former Nazis conspiring to expose Bauer as a traitor (and as a homosexual), but the movie is less concerned with tradecraft than it is with the moral reckoning that postwar Germans had yet to make with the horrors of their recent past. Thus the central conflict is internal as Bauer, as well as a trusted lieutenant (who is also in the closet), must decide what price they are willing to pay to stay true to their convictions.
It’s a compelling portrait both of Bauer and of a fraught moment in German history. But from the vantage of the present, the issues — and the characters — seem pretty black and white. If “The People” has something to say about what patriotism means in 2016, those are dots that the viewer must connect.
Cohen Media Group presents a film directed by Lars Kraume and written by Kraume and Olivier Guez. In German with English subtitles. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated R (for some sexual content). Now showing at AMC River East and Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.
Kerry Lengel, USA TODAY Network