After World War II, Germany was in ruins, with bombed-out cities and a national psyche forever scarred by Hitler’s Nazi regime. The Allies began the denazification process, removing party members and destroying all physical symbols of the National Socialist Party. But as time went on and the U.S. and the Soviet Union became embroiled in their Cold War dance, Germany was left to heal on its own – said healing consisting mostly of trying to forget the horrible atrocities committed and moving on with a return to normalcy. That’s the entry point of Labyrinth of Lies, a German historical drama that details a naive and idealistic attorney (no other kind in these narratives) whose attempts to prosecute soldiers stationed at the Auschwitz concentration camp led to the 1963-65 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials.
The year is 1958, and Johann Radmann (Fehling, suitably stiff) is a public prosecutor in Frankfurt stuck dealing with traffic violations. Elsewhere in town, Simon Kirsch (Krisch), an artist and Auschwitz survivor, recognizes one of the Waffen-SS soldiers assigned to that camp. The ex-Nazi is now a schoolteacher, and that sends Simon to Thomas Gnielka (Szymanski), a newspaper reporter who brings the information to Radmann’s department. No one shows any interest in the case except for Radmann, whose pursuit of justice is initially met with snide indifference, eventually escalating to outright hostility by colleagues and higher-ups. Except for Attorney General Fritz Bauer (Voss), who appoints Radmann to head a task force to identify and prosecute Auschwitz soldiers who have returned to civilian life. At this point, the film turns into an edifying police procedural, wherein Radmann and his small team (Radmann is actually a composite of several attorneys) sift through warehouses of documents while trying to navigate the increasing resistance from complicit superiors who would rather the whole thing just go away.
For a while, Labyrinth of Lies is a compelling docudrama. The film hammers home the point that the majority of young Germans had no idea of the atrocities inflicted at Auschwitz and other concentration camps, or of Hitler’s Final Solution because it was never spoken of by the previous generation. But when it shoehorns in a romantic subplot involving a dressmaker, Marlene (Becht), and then piles on an endless stream of third-act plot reversals, the contrivances start to lessen the impact, and the film never quite recovers from the distraction. Still, as a reminder of the banality of evil and the way a country can conveniently “forget” its casual barbarity (did someone say Guantánamo Bay?), Labyrinth of Lies is a more chilling tale than you’ll find in any horror film this season.
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