The People vs. Fritz Bauer

Theater-release poster for “The People vs. Fritz Bauer.”

Philosopher and writer George Santayana coined the aphorism “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Although we are living in “unprecedented” times, the phrase seems to have been rattling around the collective American consciousness this summer.

So now seems like an appropriate time for a movie marathon about the ways in which dictators come to power, and ultimately, what happens to them in the end.

Germany has confronted its ugly history of Nazism head-on in the decades since World War II, and in the past several years, a couple of excellent films have grappled with the long and extensive justice process and the restorative power of bringing war criminals to trial.

Italian-German director Giulio Ricciarelli directed the 2014 German Oscar submission, “Labyrinth of Lies,” in which Alexander Fehling portrays the young lawyer Johann Radmann, who in the late 1950s and ‘60s managed to successfully put together a case against hundreds of Auschwitz workers and guards. The film is beautifully made, methodical and guided by Radmann’s incredible sense of morality, while illustrating the banality of evil, the ways in which war criminals and Nazis were allowed to disappear back into civil society after the war, and why, symbolically, it was so important to put them on trial for their deeds. The film is available on all digital platforms for a $3.99 rental.

Johann Radmann’s boss for a time was the famed judge and prosecutor Fritz Bauer, who played an important role in the Auschwitz trials, and tipped off the Israeli special forces group Mossad about the whereabouts of “the Architect of the Holocaust,” Adolf Eichmann, who had escaped to Argentina. The fascinating 2015 biopic “The People vs. Fritz Bauer” is available to stream on Kanopy, or for a $3.99 rental. “Operation Finale,” the film that depicts the Mossad mission to nab Eichmann and bring him to Israel for trial, starring Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley, is available to stream on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video.

You might also be thinking about Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, what with all the disappearing of protesters going on. Master filmmaker Costa-Gavras depicted the disappearance of an American writer during the Chilean coup d’etat in 1973, when Pinochet’s military deposed President Salvador Allende, in “Missing.” Jack Lemmon stars as the writer’s father while Sissy Spacek plays the writer’s wife in the 1982 film, which is currently streaming on Peacock. The 2012 film “No,” by the lauded Chilean director Pablo Larrain, was nominated for an Oscar, and depicts a marketing campaign launched around a referendum to relieve Pinochet of power in 1988. The film stars Gael Garcia Bernal and is available for a $2.99 rental on digital platforms.

Another fascinating pair of films related to this topic depict real social science experiments that were conducted to understand how people react to systems of authority and power (e.g. Auschwitz guards in concentration camps). In the 2015 film “Experimenter,” Peter Sarsgaard plays Stanley Milgram, a social scientist who was influenced by Eichmann’s televised trial while developing the “obedience to authority” experiment, to see which individuals would deliver (fake) electric shocks to an unseen person when told to do so. The film is on Hulu, and free on The Roku Channel and Tubi with ads. The 2015 film “The Stanford Prison Experiment” depicts the 1971 social experiment undertaken by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who created a fake prison, with prisoners and guards played by a group of young men paid to participate. The film carefully observes the power dynamics, which devolve into violence among the group. It’s a gripping watch, especially as the U.S. reckons with our own police and prison structure. It’s available for rent on Amazon for $3.99.

While it’s a heavy list of films, each one is fascinating, and educational. They are stark reminders of where we could end up if we don’t remain vigilant in the defense of democracy.