Gripping drama follows hunt for war criminals in Germany

 Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann Photo by Heike Ullrich, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics 

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

The powerful historical drama “Labyrinth of Lies” may deal a blow to silence deniers of the Shoah. This German language feature film marks the directorial debut of Giulio Ricciarelli, an actor and producer who is half Italian and half German, having been born in Italy but mostly raised in Germany. 

The fact that in 1958 most Germans had never heard of Auschwitz was one of the things motivating Ricciarelli to make this film. 

In the late ‘50s, the political and legal elites in Germany consciously decided that the Nuremberg international war crimes trials, which focused on Nazi leaders, were enough, and set out to cover-up further war crimes. They concealed the extent of war crimes by ordinary Germans, who claimed to be “only following orders.” So they hid the facts from their children and blocked criminal prosecution of war criminals. This film dramatizes the lead up to the war-crimes trial in Frankfort that changed that, and the prosecutors who relentlessly pursued the truth, assisted in part by the new State of Israel and the survivors themselves.  

In 1958, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) is an ambitious young public prosecutor in Frankfort, frustrated by being limited to handling minor cases. Radmann sees his chance at a more significant case when journalist Thomas Gnielka (Andre Szymanski) brings forth evidence that a known former Nazi concentration camp guard is teaching at a local school, something forbidden by law. He insists they take action. 

Although the former Auschwitz guard had been identified by a survivor of the camp, officials in the prosecutor’s office brush the journalist off and refuse to act. Seizing the opportunity to handle something other than traffic cases, Radmann tells the journalist he will take the evidence and see that the man is removed from the school. 

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Radmann speaks to his supervisor, who tells him the man will be removed, but later learns from the journalist that, in fact, nothing has been done. The incident puzzles Radmann and reveals a pervasive resistance to going after war criminals by German officials. The journalist asks the young prosecutor, who had grown up in the post war years, if he has ever heard of Auschwitz. He has heard the name but believes it was an ordinary prisoner of war camp. The journalist poses the same question to a number of young Germans passing by. No one else has even heard of it. 

The mystery propels Radmann to act, and he becomes part of a major investigation headed by Frankfort’s Prosecutor General, Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), a German Jewish lawyer who had returned to the country he fled. Fighting against the pervasive attitude of Germans who wanted to forget and cover-up what happened during the war, Radmann uncovers a “labyrinth of lies” concealing the crimes of his parents’ generation, a guilt that pervades the whole country.  

This historically based drama uses real people and real events, along with some fictional elements, to paint a picture of a post-war Germany covering up the participation of ordinary Germans in the war. The film is based on the true facts around the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial. Not as well known as the Nuremberg trials, which prosecuted only Nazi leaders, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial was the German government bringing to court “ordinary Germans,” the concentration camp guards who participated in the killings. The prosecutors were restricted to only trying those accused of murder, as the statue of limitations had run out on all other crimes. Still, the trial received worldwide attention, and was a turning point for prosecution of war criminals and in Germany’s taking responsibility for what had happened in the war. 

Fritz Bauer, the prosecutor general who drives the investigation and encourages the young prosecutor, was a real person, a German Jew who had spent the war in Scandinavia after escaping from a concentration camp. Bauer chose to return to Germany specifically to pursue war criminals, and his courage in doing that changed Germany’s treatment of war criminals and the responsibility for what had happened. Although the film shows the investigation into Auschwitz war criminals starting with Radmann, Bauer was the one behind the effort. After years of frustration, Bauer received a list of names of Auschwitz SS members from journalist Thomas Gnielka (again, a real person), which was the breakthrough needed for the case. 

One detail that is not fictionalized is that many young Germans in 1958 had never heard of Auschwitz. Like most Germans, Radmann has only a vague awareness of the camps, and the little that had come out about Auschwitz has been dismissed as “communist propaganda” put out by the anti-German Polish government. 

While the story focuses mainly on the prosecutors hunt for the evidence to bring war criminals to justice, it also illustrates the way those who lived through the war kept their children — the generation that came of age in Germany after the war — ignorant of what they had done. This aspect is illustrated by the romance between Radmann and Marlene, a young dressmaker who is faced with the tainted history of both her father and her wealthy clients.

One of the strengths of “Labyrinth of Lies” is that it unfolds like a thriller, drawing audiences in who might not otherwise see a film about the Shoah. The film has an emotional restraint, avoiding showy dramatic scenes as the prosecutors uncover the truth, letting the horrifying facts speak for themselves. Ultimately what the young prosecutor learns profoundly affects him on a personal level, as it did the real people in this true story.

The younger generation who had grown up since the war’s end, the generation of the young prosecutors, were the key to bringing out the truth. With little in the German records about Auschwitz, the prosecution had to depend on records held by American military authorities in Germany, and by an organization of Auschwitz survivors headed by Hermann Langbein (Lukas Miko). The organization put them in touch with survivors, whose testimony was essential to the legal case. Bauer even partnered with the Israelis and Mossad in an effort bring Mengele to justice, the Nazi doctor who was being protected by powerful friends within Germany.

In this difficult atmosphere, the trial convicted a few guards but international media coverage made Auschwitz a symbol of Germany’s crimes against humanity, and ended the silence in Germany about war crimes and ushered a new attitude of acknowledging the truth of those crimes.