Susan Granger’s review of “Labyrinth of Lies” (Sony Pictures Classics)
In Germany after World War II, when reconstruction and the Federal Republic took over, the majority of the population tried to forget the atrocities of Hitler’s Third Reich. That led to a postwar generation that either never heard of Auschwitz or dismissed it as American propaganda.
So in 1958, when Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) becomes a junior prosecutor in Frankfurt, he’s intrigued when an investigative journalist, Thomas Gnielka (Andre Szymanski) reports that an artist, Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), recognized a schoolteacher as the former SS guard who brutalized him.
Naïve Radmann immediately encounters resistance to his inquiries. Prosecutor General Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss) says that it’s a lost cause because he’ll need proof of murder, since all other war crimes expired under the statute of limitations, adding that the entire German civil service is filled with former Nazis.
Nevertheless, with Gnielka’s help, Radmann launches an investigation encompassing 8,000 people who worked at Auschwitz. The odds are daunting as Radmann views the U.S. Army Document Center archives in Wiesbaden, where records of 600,000 suspects are haphazardly stored.
Driven by shame and guilt, along with societal complicity involving his own family, Radmann becomes obsessive in his arduous research. Eventually, 22 former Nazis were tried for murder, none of whom were repentant or apologetic.
Unlike the famous Nuremburg trials in the 1940s by the Allies against surviving members of the Nazi high command, the Auschwitz trials (1963-1965) were prosecuted by Germans themselves against fellow countrymen.
Italian-born German director Giulio Ricciarelli and co-writer Elizabeth Bartel created Radmann as a composite of three real-life German prosecutors. He’s the young idealist battling an entrenched bureaucracy. And they wisely resisted the temptation to utilize familiar concentration camp footage when Radmann eventually visits Poland.
There’s also a romantic subplot involving an enterprising young dressmaker (Friederike Becht) whom Radmann initially prosecuted in traffic court. And an attempt to capture elusive Dr. Josef Mengele.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Labyrinth of Lies” is an engrossing, enlightening 8. It’s Germany’s Academy Award submission as Best Foreign Language Film.