Saturday, August 27, 2016

In Hot Pursuit

The tagline is familiar to fans of pulp fiction and a wide variety film genres. A dangerous prowler is on the loose and could attack at any moment. Is it:
There's a reason why such warnings need to be more specific. What if the mild-mannered old man who just got off the bus is one of the world's most wanted serial killers? It helps to know these things.

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I'm old enough to remember newspaper headlines announcing that on May 11, 1960, the former Nazi mastermind, Adolf Eichmann, had been captured. But at 13 years of age, I really didn't understand the significance of the event. Nor did I have any idea why a team of Mossad agents found Eichmann about 12 miles outside of Buenos Aires and smuggled him out of Argentina on a secret flight to Tel Aviv.

From the time of his capture until Eichmann was hanged on June 1, 1962, his name remained in the news. However, by 1968, when Robert Shaw's stage adaptation of his novel entitled The Man in the Glass Booth opened on Broadway with Donald Pleasance heading a cast that included Abe Vigoda, F. Murray Abraham, and Ronnie Gilbert (from The Weavers), I had become too infatuated with opera and musical theatre to show any interest in Shaw's drama. What did I care about a play that confronted audiences with "a complex and morally ambiguous tale of a man who, at various times in the story, is either a Jewish businessman pretending to be a Nazi war criminal or a Nazi war criminal pretending to be a Jewish businessman"?

Playbill for Robert Shaw's The Man in the Glass Booth

Over the years, as I learned more about the Holocaust, about my Uncle Irving's role in running the Landsberg facility (one of the largest displaced persons camps for European Jews in Europe immediately after World War II), and began to understand the horrors inflicted by the Third Reich, I came to realize why the couple who quietly ran the grocery store around the corner had numbers tattooed on their arms.

As history later revealed, Eichmann was the man who engineered much of the Nazi killing machine (from the trains that would evacuate Jews and other "undesirables" from urban areas to the death factories which rendered "the final solution" in concentration camps like Auschwitz). In 1945, he insisted that "I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction."

Starting with Martin Sherman's 1979 drama, Bent, and continuing through my exposure to films like 2005's A Love To Hide and 2008's The Clown and the Fuhrer, I continued to learn about the horrors of Hitler's genocide. The 2016 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival included a stunning suspense film written and directed by Lars Kraume (with the help of co-writer Olivier Guez) that focused on one man's quest to track Eichmann down and bring him to justice.

Filmmaker Lars Kraume (Photo by: Swaantje Hehmann)

The People vs. Fritz Bauer dramatizes Bauer's obsession with finding Eichmann and bringing him back to Frankfurt so he could be put on trial for the murders at Auschwitz. As the attorney general in for Hessen, Bauer's hope was that, as part of the discovery process, he could get Hans Globke to reveal the identities of previous Nazis who were still employed within West Germany's government. The film’s director became interested in Bauer’s story after reading Guez’s book, Return of the Unwanted - A History of the Jews in Germany After 1945. As Kraume recalls:
“The book deals with the question of how Jewish life in the land of the murderers after the Holocaust could continue at all. One chapter has to do with Fritz Bauer and the Auschwitz trials. When Olivier presented the German translation about four years ago in Berlin, I approached him and told him it would also be an interesting subject for a film. When we considered together what one could make out of it we were soon stuck on Fritz Bauer, because he's such a singular figure: He doesn't behave at all like most of the victims who don't want to talk about the Holocaust anymore. Although he runs into overwhelming and tremendous resistance, he wants to indict the former Nazis -- not out of revenge, but rather because he is driven by a humanistic ethos and the drive to educate people. We tell the redemption story of a man who returns to Germany after the Second World War as a broken pessimist and discovers his calling in the fight against collective forgetting. He is an iridescent personality who virtually lends himself to becoming the lead character in a film.”
Burghart Klaussner stars in The People vs. Fritz Bauer

Bauer’s character offers numerous dramatic challenges. Frequently regarded by his professional colleagues as "an angry Jew,” Bauer had been living in exile in Denmark from 1935-1943 when he was apprehended one night by the police in the company of male prostitutes. As the film begins, he comes close to drowning in his bathtub from an overdose of painkillers, but is rescued by his devoted chauffeur. When one of his associate attorneys, Karl Angermann, requests his help defending a man brought up on morals charges, Bauer points him to an obscure and controversial defense strategy.

Burghart Klaussner and Ronald Zehrfeld
in a scene from The People vs. Fritz Bauer

“Almost all of the characters really existed, except for Karl Angermann, our representative of ♠a generation of young, idealistic public prosecutors who fought together with Fritz Bauer out of conviction. We fictionalized him by fusing various real persons in order to put an attachment figure at Bauer's side (and in order to bring the subject of homosexuality into play),” explains Kraume. “Homosexuality was important to us in two ways: First, for the dramatic development of the story, (at that time Paragraph 175 of the Civil Code was in effect, which made ‘lewd activities’ between males punishable by law), because it gives the antagonists the chance to bring about Fritz Bauer's downfall. And second, in order to show the ongoing tyranny of the Adenauer era: This 'homo paragraph' (which had been made even stricter when the Nazis were in power) wasn't abolished in Germany until 1994!”

Ronald Zehrfeld co-stars as assistant attorney
Karl Angermann in The People vs. Fritz Bauer

A married man, Angermann's introduction to (and growing fascination with) a transsexual entertainer leaves him vulnerable to blackmail unless he turns against Bauer. When the Israelis bring Eichmann to Tel Aviv instead of Frankfurt, Bauer finds himself deprived of his ultimate goal, yet saved by a legal technicality.

Burghart Klaussner stars in The People vs. Fritz Bauer

Traume's film benefits immensely from Burghart Klaussner's powerful performance as the cunning yet methodical Bauer, with Ronald Zehrfeld (who looks like an older version of Brendan Fraser) lending a dark dignity to Angermann. Lilith Stangenberg is cagily seductive as the mysterious Victoria while Cornelia Groschel portrays Angermann's neglected wife. In supporting roles, Michael Schenk appears as Adolf Eichmann, with Sebastian Blomberg as the villainous Ulrich Kreidler.

The People vs. Fritz Bauer is beautifully written, resulting in a keen thriller which touches on the reasons why both the CIA and Konrad Adenauer's administration were in no rush for Eichmann to be brought to justice. Here's the trailer:

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Not only did 2016 witness far too many unnecessary gun deaths and incidents of domestic terrorism, it also offered Americans a sorry confirmation that, for many police officers, their gut instinct is to shoot first and ask questions later. As a result, it's important to remember that, in other cultures, law enforcement officials are trained to defuse dangerous situations rather than aggravate them.

Anyone who has traveled to Australia (which has very strict gun control regulations) knows that there are ways to address petty crime without using bullets. That contrast was brought into sharp focus earlier this year when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened Yasujiro Ozu's 16th film with live musical accompaniment by Maud Nelissen.

A noir-style shot from Yasujiro Ozu's
1930 crime film, That Night's Wife

That Night's Wife (1930) focuses on Shuji Hashizume (Tokihiko Okada) a desperate young father whose sick daughter, Michiko (Mitsuko Ichimura), is in need of medicine. Lacking the money to pay for it, Hashizume robs an office. Following a chase through darkened neighborhoods, the crime leads to his capture by Kagawa (Togo Yamamoto), a detective whose empathy far outweighs any professional pressure to prove his masculinity.

Placing the needs of an innocent child over those of the local police department, Ozu's film stands in sharp contrast to the action and gunfire found in Japan's yakuza films. As Imogen Sara Smith writes in her program note:
"The film soon becomes a family drama in a hushed, intimate key. Aside from the noirish opening sequence, That Night’s Wife confines itself almost entirely to the small apartment where Shuji Hashizume lives with his wife and child. Ozu cross-cuts between Hashizume’s escape from the office he has robbed and his wife at home taking care of their sick child. A detective, Kagawa tracks the robber home but agrees to let him stay through the night because his daughter is in critical condition. It’s a suspenseful setup, but the texture of everyday life, of mundane objects and activities, is crucial to the story’s emotional power. Guns are important (early on, we see one in close-up pointed directly at the camera), but so is the ice pack that soothes the feverish child, a telephone receiver, a flower in a water glass, a child’s drawings."
Tokihiko Okada,  Mitsuko Ichimura, and Emiko Yagumo in
a scene from 1930's Japanese crime film, That Night's Wife

Ozu was fascinated by Western culture and the films coming out of Hollywood. Adapted from a story by Oscar Schisgall, That Night's Wife is filled with references to American cinema. Much of the film involves a tense, night-long standoff between the detective and the young couple as the three adults wait for the child's fever to break.

Emiko Yagumo in a scene from Yasujiro Ozu's
1930 crime film, That Night's Wife
Tokihiko Okada and Emiko Yagumo in a scene from 
1930's Japanese crime film, That Night's Wife

"A long circular pan introduces the apartment, taking in the vertical lines of hanging laundry, dangling ropes, a ladder, the railings of the bed, and the crazy collage of posters and blackboards papering the walls. The snippets of English on these posters form a surreal background commentary throughout the drama: 'Broadway Scandals,' 'Walter Huston,' and the slyly fitting 'Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd,'" notes Smith. "There is a single overtly Japanese note in the film’s visual vocabulary, the kimono worn by Hashizume’s wife Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo). When we first see her, bowing to a doctor and presenting a bowl of water for him to wash his hands, she is an image of classic Japanese femininity, nurturing and self-effacing. But when the detective comes to arrest her husband, she picks up a gun (which she has hidden in her child’s bed) and calmly trains it on him."

Directed with a beautiful sense of subtlety, That Night's Wife offers a stunning example of how crime might be handled in a culture whose ethos differs dramatically from America's. By the time morning arrives, Hashizume is willing to surrender to Kagawa and face the consequences of his crime. No one has been killed. He can go to jail with the full expectation that his wife and child will be waiting for him in two years, when he is eventually released from prison. Just try to imagine that happening in today's America!

Emiko Yagumo and Tokihiko Okada in a scene from
1930's Japanese crime film, That Night's Wife

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