Pressing still-sensitive buttons on home turf and throughout the world, “After the Truth” is a slickly lensed, atmospheric courtroom drama with a cheeky premise: What if Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s Angel of Death, were alive and came back to Germany to defend himself in court? As a piece of pure cinema, Roland Suso Richter’s movie is a gripping and often surprisingly moving slice of entertainment, flawed mostly by a weak payoff. Toplined by two local stars, Goetz George and Kai Wiesinger, the pic looks certain to rack up at least solid numbers when it opens in Germany Sept. 23; internationally, its fate will be affected by response to its world preem at the Toronto fest and European debut in competition at San Sebastian.
On the surface, the film bears some parallels with Shunya Ito’s “Pride,” which sought to throw a more human light on Japanese war criminal Hideki Tojo (inventor of the WWII suicide code) and questioned the nature of national pride. Actually, “After the Truth” is a very different kind of movie which shows not the slightest intention of straying into the quicksand of apologia, accepts Nazi brutalities as an indefensible fact and moves on from there.
Instead of going over well-tilled ground, the fictional scenario centers on a hunted criminal who submits a high-baggage issue to the due processes of law — and tests the objectivity of the legal system and present-day Germany’s ability to face up to what he sees as the truth.
The fact that the drama is worked out entirely in German terms, rather than played on an international stage with the world’s media and pressure groups and international powers, gives the film a striking freshness, but is likely to rankle some Western auds.
The lives of young lawyer Peter Rohm (Wiesinger) and his wife Rebekka (Karoline Eichhorn) are turned upside down when a package is delivered containing a Nazi uniform. With a friend’s help, Rohm ascertains that the duds could have belonged to Mengele.
Whisked away the same night to a deserted mansion, Rohm is questioned by a mysterious man, Mueller (Heinz Trixner); then he’s drugged and flown to a deserted location in Argentina, where he meets an old man (George) who goes under the name Heinz Baumgarten but who claims to be Mengele.
Rohm was born in the same village as Mengele and has been researching a book on him. The old man persuades the lawyer to take his case, but to Rohm’s question “Why me?” Mengele simply replies, “You are an honorable man” — one of many psychological ploys to ensnare Rohm in his web.
Held in a high-security hospital ward cum cell, the physically weak but imposing Mengele plays mind games with Rohm and the authorities, maintaining an absolute cool as the media goes into a tailspin. Finally, Rohm goes on TV to announce he is taking the case to “establish the truth,” causing tension with his wife and demonstrations in the streets.
Forty-five minutes into the movie, in a skin-crawling sequence in which Mengele calmly sits in a specially constructed glass box in the Berlin courtroom — raising memories of the Robert Shaw-penned play and film, “Man in the Glass Booth” — the red meat of the drama is laid bare as Rohm puts his career on the line before a coolly legalistic judge (the excellent Michaela Rosen).
Mengele’s argument boils down to two points: He was first and foremost a research scientist, involved in experiments from which the medical world has since benefited and in which some casualties were inevitable; second, he challenges the prosecution to produce evidence that he personally ordered or performed any killings.
Despite their emotional memories, eyewitnesses fail to puncture Mengele’s argument. Then the old man plays his ace card, leading Rohm on a search through dusty archives that reveals shocking new evidence.
With the pic’s atmospheric opening and courtroom thriller structure, helmer Suso Richter (whose credits include the fine prison drama “14 Days to Life,” also starring Wiesinger) never pretends this is anything other than a slice of manufactured, if thought-provoking, entertainment. Martin Langer’s often chilling widescreen lensing, and the camera’s gentle swoops across Michael Pfalzer’s impressive courtroom set, create an impressive stage for George’s perf and Wiesinger’s intelligent but troubled lawyer.
Though the heavily built George is not always convincing as a sickly 87 -year-old, and his prosthetics-heavy makeup sometimes looks phony, the thesp’s gravel voice largely makes up for these weaknesses. Wiesinger stretches himself in an unaccustomed role, and the supporting cast, including Doris Schade as Rohm’s mom, is strong. Eichhorn, a fine theater and TV actress making her debut in a feature, is wasted in the underwritten part of the lawyer’s wife.
Script is based on an original by two American writers who reportedly couldn’t raise a cent Stateside. In Germany, no TV station would back telescribe Johannes Betz’s German script, and the only state money came from the Bavarian Film Fund and Berlin-based Studio Babelsberg Independents. George put 1 million marks ($ 543,000) of his own money into the movie, and Wiesinger acted for no fee.
Co-producer Edward R. Pressman’s role is understood to have been mostly advisory in terms of pic’s palatability to international auds. German title means “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” For the record, Mengele died in Brazil in early 1979.