This new German film is about the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the early 1960s, which helped publicize the horrors of the Holocaust to a Germany still largely ignorant or in denial.
The young hero prosecutor is a fictionalized combination of several prosecutors, while his superior, the local state attorney general, Fritz Bauer, was real, a Jewish German jurist who had barely escaped the Third Reich. Bauer in reality saw the unprecedented prosecutions of Auschwitz death camp personnel as an opportunity for Germany to accept moral responsibility for the crimes of only a decade and half before. Bauer the film character is somewhat more reluctant. He knows the legal and political obstacles in a postwar Germany where many former Nazis are influential and where most people preferred to forget or pretend the Nazis seized power without broad support.
Germany’s great postwar Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was himself imprisoned by the Third Reich but preferred during his successful and prosperous rule to not look back. In the 1950s, at least according to the film, most even well informed Germans had never heard of Auschwitz or thought it merely a detainment camp, its guards only dutiful soldiers.
The idealistic young prosecutor gains records from the U.S. Army’s captured archives of Nazi records, but cooperation from German police and other authorities is difficult to gain. He futilely targets infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, after the Israeli abduction of Adolf Eichmann, which Attorney General Bauer had helped facilitate. Bauer encourages his subordinate to work on less prominent, more “ordinary” Auschwitz killers, to remind the public that the Holocaust was perpetrated by ordinary Germans.
When his idealism bursts, upon learning that his own late father had been a party member, the young prosecutor collapses into deep cynicism, damning his nation as unredeemable and implicitly unworthy of his own work for justice and redemption. Who was NOT a Nazi? Eventually of course he regains his sense of duty, thanks partly to his own personal visit to Auschwitz, where he, as a Gentile, says Jewish prayers for the dead, and the trials are successfully prosecuted. In real life, 22 Auschwitz personnel are convicted in the Frankfurt trials, reputedly none of whom expressed regret.
Although not explicitly religious, this film is instructive for its themes of exposing gross evil, contending with national sin, and shunning despair despite overwhelming resistance to recalling truth or seeking redemption. Germany, 70 years after the Third Reich, is relatively penitent, to the extent any nation can be, for its past crimes, thanks partly to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. But that penitence doesn’t undo the horrors, nor minimize the constant need for renewed remembrance.