Germany’s submission (trailer) for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards puts viewers in a world of anti-Semitism, fear, denial, indifference and callous pragmatism. The movie, screened with subtitles, breathes life into the familiar storyline of a justice-seeking crusader. This one is not entirely alone, but the pervasive forces he’s battling are propagated not just by those in power but by the common folk as well.
Set in Frankfurt in 1958, the movie fictionalizes the effort to conduct the first German prosecutions of former Nazi officials. Many believed the Nuremberg trials conducted by the Allied forces had resolved that matter (or should have). At the same time, it was common knowledge that war criminals were everywhere, carrying on normal lives with impunity. Only after these ground-breaking trials did Germans finally confronted their wartime culpability.
Bringing ex-Nazis to justice required heroic effort. Making that journey in the film is young prosecutor Johann Radmann, played by Alexander Fehling in a widely praised performance. (Radmann is a composite of several real-life prosecutors.) He’s a junior one, handling traffic violations, but he’s ambitious. The screenplay deftly reveals this by showing him articulating the case for sentencing a murderer to the maximum penalty of life imprisonment, then we see he’s standing alone in front of a bathroom mirror.
Into this unfulfilled life comes a revelation from a journalist, Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski). He tells prosecutors a member of the Waffen S.S. stationed at the Auschwitz concentration camp now works as a school teacher, in violation of federal law. Radmann wants the case, but he’s opposed by his boss and colleagues. He’s supported, however, then led by a shrewd, experienced Attorney General, Fritz Bauer, the real-life hero of the story, who has long harbored the ambition of bringing top ex-Nazis to justice. Played by the late Gert Voss, he exudes quiet power.
Radmann is far less aggressive in his personal life than his professional one, but a convincing romantic involvement with a dressmaker, Marlene Wondrak (Friederike Becht), raises the stakes for him.
We feel the horrors of the camp through the emotions of survivors, primarily artist Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), a friend of Gnielka, who lost his twin daughters to the horrific experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele. But the focus stays on the complicity of those who continue to ignore, deny, or cover up Nazi crimes. It’s not difficult to understand the disconnect between Radmann and the people trying to thwart him. He was too young to appreciate how so many of his countrymen came to be Nazis. If he can’t come to terms with his new knowledge, however, it will destroy him.
Some critics, such as The Boston Globe’s Peter Keough, have found the movie “formulaic and uninspired,” but most have a more positive view, such as that of Kate Taylor in The Globe and Mail of Toronto. She called it “a strong account of a lesser-known episode of post-Holocaust history raised above its obvious cinematic formula by Fehling’s anchoring performance and the film’s wise approach to the survivors’ horrific testimony.”
Rotten Tomatoes ratings are 78% from critics and 83% from viewers.
Guest review by fellow writing group member David Ludlum, a fan of tales of intrigue.