In the late 1950s, lots of people in West Germany were still reluctant to acknowledge the truth about the Holocaust, the horrors of Auschwitz and the reality that many former Nazis and camp guards were going on with their lives without fear of prosecution.
Into this period of denial walks a young public prosecutor, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), who’s tired of dealing with petty crimes and faces a seemingly long road up the office ladder. But everything starts to change when journalist Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski) shows up at the courthouse with documents indicating that a former Auschwitz guard is actually a local schoolteacher.
Radmann is intrigued, but his colleagues and immediate supervisor tell him to ignore the journalist — that there’s no use pursuing prosecution. Radmann, of course, doesn’t heed their warnings. And eventually he discovers that his office’s top lawyer, Prosecutor General Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), actually wants the matter investigated, and that he has long wanted to pursue prosecution of former guards for war crimes but has never been able to get his hands on enough evidence to make arrests. Part of the problem: Most of the former Nazis are protected by the statute of limitations. Only murder charges can be pursued, and the office needs proof of those murders.
Bauer decides to put Radmann in charge of the investigation, and a long line of former war prisoners begin to offer testimony about their tormentors during World War II.
Radmann also has to pore through thousands of documents to pinpoint who was where during the war, and who did what. He uncovers an appalling history, as well as a mountain of lies.
Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli, Labyrinth of Lies manages to make all of this compelling by focusing on Radmann’s personal crises during the investigation, especially the realization that his revered father was a member of the National Socialist regime. And it doesn’t hurt that Radmann falls in love with Marlene Wondrak (Friederike Becht), who is a close friend of the journalist trying to uncover war crimes.
As history students know, Germany did indeed put former Nazis on trial in 1963, long after the convictions at the Nuremberg Trials, which focused on some of the Nazis’ top officers.
Ricciarelli, the director who co-wrote the script, says he thinks this period was crucial in Germany’s evolution, because the nation finally confronted its past without dismissing war crimes as mere propaganda by the victors. The character of Fritz Bauer in the movie is based on the actual prosecutor, who also tipped off Israel to the whereabouts of Adolf Eichmann but who was never able to arrest the notorious doctor Josef Mengele, who carried out numerous experiments on prisoners.
It’s a heroic tale, full of complexity and thoughtfulness. But as we all know, there are still deniers.
Cast: Alexander Fehling, Andre Szymanski, Friederike Becht, Johannes Krisch, Hansi Jochmann.
Director: Giulio Ricciarelli.
Screenwriters: Elisabeth Bartel, Giulio Ricciarelli.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 122 minutes. Sexual situations. In German with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: Tower.