In the end, every nation gets the history it deserves, if only as it is reflected in art. Consider the latest freshet in the seemingly never-ending river of films about the Shoah and its aftermaths, and how they relate to local political events.
On the one hand, we have the case a year ago of Oskar Gröning, the Auschwitz bookkeeper who was tried for complicity in some 300,000 cases of murder at the Nazi death camp. That trial wouldn’t have occurred were it not for changes in German jurisprudence that made it possible to try not only those accused of crimes against humanity for a single specific act, but also those accused of participation in the murder machinery of the camps.
Gröning was 94 when he was finally brought to trial in April 2015. Some would argue that this is a classic case of too little, too late. One suspects that Fritz Bauer, the state attorney general for Hesse who was responsible for the first Auschwitz trial in 1963, would disagree vehemently.
Bauer, a Jew and a socialist who spent eight months in the Heuberg concentration camp and over a dozen years in exile, returned to Germany in 1949, determined to build a Germany that would be a constitutional democracy purged of its recent criminal past by legal means. A shortish, middle-aged man with flyaway gray hair, he was an unlikely hero for a film, let alone one with strong elements of the espionage thriller, but that is exactly what Lars Kraume’s “The People vs. Fritz Bauer” is.
Kraume is a veteran TV and film director with a slick, balanced visual style well suited to the genre. “The People vs.” is an understated, smoothly running piece of craft that manages to adroitly play off its moral questions about postwar guilt against the traditional concerns of betrayal, paranoia and secrecy. The film focuses its attention on one relatively brief period in Bauer’s career, when he became privy to information about the whereabouts of Adolf Eichmann, then hiding in Buenos Aires. Ultimately, with high-ranking ex-Nazis honeycombing the Adenauer government and its local counterparts, Bauer’s only recourse was to turn the information over to the Mossad.
Kraume portrays Bauer as a sardonic, sarcastic loner, often prickly with his less-than-trustworthy staff. Burghart Klaussner plays him as compulsively solitary and suspicious, a sort of beady-eyed Spencer Tracy with a hidden reserve of fatherly warmth seen only by a select few.
For all its frankness about the pervasive corruption in the postwar German government and the morally tottering foundations of the country’s “economic miracle,” Bauer and his protégé Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld) offer hope by dint of their sheer integrity. Given the record of the West German government and its unified successor in matters of reparation, restitution and confessions of guilt, particularly in light of the legal changes in recent years, one is tempted to say that the dogged honesty of Kraume’s fictionalized Bauer is the picture of probity the Germans deserve.
Then there is Poland. With the Polish government dead set on controlling the writing of the history of the WWII era, and its staunch determination to reject any blame for any part of the Shoah, the country is also getting the movies it deserves.
Take, for example, raucous, bleakly funny and fiercely subversive “Demon.” “Demon” is the feature film debut of acclaimed Polish television director Marcin Wrona; regrettably, it is also his only feature film, as he committed suicide shortly after the movie began to make its way around the festival circuit. The film is a darkly humorous reworking of “The Dybbuk” with a deftly realized switch that turns that familiar tale of love from beyond the grave into a parable of Polish anti-Semitism in the postwar era. After he uncovers a human skeleton on the grounds of his new home, a bridegroom begins behaving very strangely, channeling the spirit of a young Jewish bride whose death is never completely explained. The next day the wedding celebration takes a series of ghastly (and ghostly) turns, becoming a mud-covered black comedy in the vein of “The Exterminating Angel.”
The film represents the return of the repressed; it is a relentless work that almost literally raises the dead in the name of a larger social and cosmic justice, precisely the justice from which recent Polish governments have yet again turned away.
Perhaps the best one can say for the Germans is that they’ve learned how better to keep the dead underground 70 years after the war. But that is surely some kind of progress, at least compared to Polish experience.
George Robinson writes about films for the paper.