A principled young prosecutor in post-WWII Germany uncovers inconvenient truths about his country’s recent past in “Labyrinth of Lies,” an intelligent and arresting fact-based drama that plays like a more streamlined version of the high-minded, blunt-spoken, socially conscious “prestige pictures” made by Stanley Kramer and similarly ambitious American auteurs during the 1950s and ’60s. With artfully muted measures of amazement and outrage, actor-turned-feature-filmmaker Giulio Ricciarelli and co-scripter Elisabeth Bartel illuminate a relatively obscure chapter of German history, the campaign to identify, locate, and bring to trial some 22 “very normal Germans” who had actively facilitated the Final Solution at Auschwitz — but remained unpunished, and largely forgotten, long after the war ended. Commercial prospects and awards potential are such that Sony Pictures Classics acquired North American distribution rights for the film shortly after its Toronto Film Festival premiere.
Alexander Fehling (“Inglourious Basterds”) evinces an effective mix of naivete, idealism and implacable dedication — along with flashes of self-righteousness, and bottled-up rage that occasionally is uncorked – in the lead role of Johann Radmann, a composite of three real-life prosecutors who participated in the 1963-65 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. When he is introduced in 1958 Frankfurt, Radmann is a new hire at the public prosecutor’s office, and already impatient for tasks more meaningful than working in traffic court. His curiosity is piqued — and, yes, his ambition is stoked — during a brief encounter with Thomas Gneilka (Andre Szymanski), a gadfly journalist seeking justice for his artist friend Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), an Auschwitz survivor who recently spotted one of his wartime tormentors teaching at a local school.
Trouble is, no police official wants to accept a complaint against the schoolteacher, and no one at the prosecutor’s office wants to file a charge. Radmann is initially bewildered by this institutionalized disinterest, especially after he discovers, after only the most cursory of investigations, that the teacher had been a member of the Waffen SS in Auschwitz. It takes only a few more inquiries for Radmann to realize that this is not an isolated case, and that, as a more informed associate explains, “The public sector is full of Nazis. And none of them has anything to worry about.” Sure enough, as Radmann delves through the mountains of files stored at the U.S. Army Document Center, he finds evidence that thousands of former Nazis simply returned to their everyday lives following the war, and were left free to do so by a German citizenry eager to return to normalcy during the postwar era of the economic miracle.
His diligence, it should be noted, is not universally applauded. Much like the indefatigable truth teller of “The Nasty Girl,” Michael Verhoeven’s fact-inspired 1990 drama about a schoolgirl curious about her town’s Nazi past, Radmann finds his investigation is viewed as an annoying self-indulgence, or worse, by many around him. But Prosecutor Gen. Fritz Bauer (the late Gert Voss, to whom this film is dedicated) is impressed by his young associate’s industriousness. As a result, Radmann gets the opportunity to build cases against the war criminals of Auschwitz. The only catch: Given the statutes of limitation for lesser crimes, he can prosecute only those who can be charged with murder. This, however, does not prove to be an insurmountable restriction.
After so many decades of exposure to books, novels, films and TV miniseries that have graphically catalogued the horrors of the Holocaust, contemporary audiences may find it difficult if not impossible to believe that, well into the 1950s, most Germans of Radmann’s generation knew nothing of what transpired at Auschwitz. And their elders — not just Nazis, but Germans who preferred to forget — were not of a mind to educate them. This is the phenomenon at the heart of “Labyrinth of Lies,” a prosaic but fascinating account of how a dense fog of nationwide amnesia was dissipated by the relentless pursuit of justice.
On one level, it is a coming-of-age story, with Radmann becoming indelibly marked by the education he receives from the testimony of eyewitnesses. To their credit, however, Ricciarelli and Bartel do not exploit the real-life horrors by turning them into character-building object lessons. During their film’s most powerful sequence, several Auschwitz survivors file through Radmann’s office, each telling of atrocities they endured or viewed. But the audience sees only the faces of the pained but resolute witnesses, and hears not their words but elegiac music. When Radmann’s matronly secretary leaves the interview room with a stunned expression on her face, the filmmakers make their point with an impact undiminished by their respectful subtlety.
Radmann inevitably is radicalized — though not always for the good of his cause. “Labyrinth of Lies” is a story of ambition as well as idealism, and the young prosecutor becomes so intent on punishing war criminals that, for a dangerously long stretch, he neglects the pursuit of lesser monsters while setting his sights on the elusive Dr. Josef Mengele. It’s never entirely clear how large a role ego plays in clouding his judgment. But this tantalizing ambiguity is one of a few welcome elements that add complexity to an otherwise straightforward, even old-fashioned melodrama.
Predictably, Radmann comes to neglect his lovely girlfriend, Marlene (Friederike Becht), during his crusade. (Her expertise as a seamstress triggers some unfortunately clunky dialogue during a scene in which Radmann tries to patch up his jacket, and their relationship.) Just as predictably, the young prosecutor must repeatedly defend himself, and his motives, against older superiors and acquaintances who would very much prefer that he let sleeping Nazis lie.
On the other hand, some of the cliches are invigorated with what can only be described as crowd-pleasing showmanship. At one point, Radmann’s least supportive superior angrily asks: “Do you want every young man in this country to wonder whether his father was a murder?” When Radmann more or less says yes, that’s exactly what he wants, some viewers will find it well-nigh irresistible to respond with applause.
Lensers Martin Langer and Roman Osin and production designer Manfred Doring are impressively adept at evoking the look and feel of a Germany — well, OK, a West Germany — that is evolving into an economically miraculous place where, quite understandably, many people don’t want to rock the boat. German and American pop tunes are cleverly employed on the soundtrack to further enhance period flavor.
“Labyrinth of Lies” makes a point of emphasizing that, unlike the more well-known Nuremberg trials, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials involved Germans prosecuting Germans, to heal wounds and ensure justice despite widespread criticism of such measures. It will be interesting to see how many critics and commentators discern comparisons between Germans who really didn’t want to know the truth about what happened during World War II, and Americans who bristle at the very suggestion that torture recently was a tool of trade by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.