Labyrinth of Lies deals with a pretty much forgotten chapter in German history—the 1963 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. State prosecutors in the German city of Frankfurt brought former mid-and-low level functionaries of the Auschwitz death camp to trial despite opposition from Nazi sympathizers and an apathetic public. Perhaps the most surprising thing one learns from the film is just how ignorant the general population was of Auschwitz and the Nazi era when the story begins in 1958.
The protagonist is a composite character, Johann Radmann, based on three real-life prosecutors, played by the popular German actor, Alexander Fehling. When we’re first introduced to Radmann, he has a low level job in the prosecutor’s officer handling traffic violations. His by-the-book demeanor immediately becomes apparent when he refuses to allow a pretty Fraulein, to pay a reduced fine for a traffic infraction.
Through the efforts of Tomas Gnielka, a journalist obsessed with Germany’s embrace of Nazism, Radmann soon gets wind of a former Auschwitz guard now working as a school teacher. Radmann is rebuffed by the lead prosecutor in the office who disparages him for taking an interest in the former Auschwitz guard—in the lead prosecutor’s view, this will only open up a can of worms. But a higher-up, Fritz Bauer— the Attorney General– is sympathetic toward efforts to uncover the crimes of the Nazi past, and appoints Radmann as the special prosecutor responsible for prosecuting those responsible for crimes at the death camp.
Radmann gets his first leads from Simon Kirsch, an Auschwitz survivor, introduced to him by Gnielka. Kirsch is uncooperative at first but later, along with other survivors, provides important testimony that will aid Radmann in his quest to bring various Auschwitz functionaries to justice. Radmann also digs up evidence from files at an US Army base. Director Giulio Ricciarelli does well in chronicling the extreme state of denial many Germans were in as they grappled with the legacy of Nazi horrors.
There are also sympathisers who do everything they can (including throwing a rock with a swastika on it, through Radmann’s window), to derail him from finishing his job. You would never guess that the actual Auschwitz participants who now have ordinary jobs were stone-cold killers, just a little over a decade before.
Labyrinth of Lies gets bogged down when Radmann becomes obsessed with tracking down the notorious ‘Butcher of Auschwitz’, Dr. Josef Mengele, in spite of orders to desist from his boss Bauer. Radmann’s efforts to capture Mengele prove fruitless, despite having learned that Mengele has been returning to Germany from South America to visit his relatives. Since we already know that Mengele was never captured, there is very little point in chronicling Radmann’s unsuccessful quest for a good part of the second half of the narrative.
Radmann has his ‘dark moment’ of the second Act, when he becomes overly self-righteous in holding his fellow Germans to account for their indifference during the Nazi years. It turns out that Gnielka, the fanatically anti-Nazi journalist, was actually a 17-year-old worker at the death camp; and Redmann’s girlfriend, Marlene, has been making profits in selling clothes to the wives of former Nazis. At one point Radmann quits the prosecutor’s office and signs on with a hot-shot attorney but eventually sees the light and agrees to finish his prosecutorial duties.
Labyrinth of Lies is a valuable film in that it paints an indelible portrait of a society coming to grips with its dark past. While not everything works in the film (the Mengele sequence is particularly overdone), the exploration of this largely forgotten chapter in German history, is most welcome.