When the film “Labyrinth of Lies” opens, the year is 1958, Germany is rising from the ruins of the Nazi Reich, and its people are largely in a state of forgetfulness and denial about the recent past.
Millions of Jews exterminated in SS concentration camps? That’sGreuelpropaganda (horror propaganda) spread by the enemy.
Auschwitz? What’s that? Haven’t heard of it.
What about the Nuremberg trials of war criminals? Well, that’s just the winners judging the losers, as after every war.
Into this “Labyrinth of Silence” — the original and superior title of the German film, which is based on a true story and was recently named Germany’s entry for next year’s Oscars — steps the young German lawyer Johann Radmann, who has just been hired as a junior prosecutor by the attorney general for Hesse, a state in the center of Germany.
Quickly tiring of dealing with traffic offenses, Radmann perks up when an investigative journalist tells him that a former SS concentration camp guard now works as a gym teacher in a local high school.
Such an appointment is against the law, but nobody wants to bother checking out the case. Radmann’s immediate superior, Prosecutor General Fritz Bauer, shrugs and wearily explains that the statute of limitations prevents prosecution of anyone except those personally convicted of actual murder during the Hitler era.
As a Jew and a socialist, Bauer spent some months in a concentration camp when the Nazis came to power, then went abroad and returned after the war.
He tells his naïve young colleague that the entire German civil service is permeated with former ardent Nazis, but that it’s an impossible job to bring them to justice.
However, Radmann won’t give up. He meets a Jewish survivor, whose twin daughters died during one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments, and who possesses an official list with the names of all of the SS guards who served in Auschwitz.
The survivor, though, doesn’t want to reopen old wounds by testifying. Radmann visits the U.S. Army Documentation Center in Wiesbaden, where the American major in charge points to a jumble of files on 600,000 Nazi suspects, including 8,000 who worked in Auschwitz, and invites the visitor to go through them. Besides, the American says, facing the new Soviet threat is more important than going after ex-Nazis.
Radmann appeals to his boss to provide some manpower for the enormous investigative undertaking, but finds little sympathy. He is told that every suspect insists he had no choice but to follow orders, and, in any case, does Radmann want every young man in Germany to wonder whether his father was a murderer?
The pressure keeps mounting on Radmann. His attempt, made against orders, to catch Mengele when he sneaks into Germany to attend his father’s funeral misfires. To his horror, the young prosecutor finds out that his own beloved father was also a member of the Nazi Party.
Radmann starts drinking and slowly falls apart. He takes to accosting pedestrians on the street, demanding to know whether they had been Nazis.
In the end, though, he buckles down and, after five years of preparation, the trial of 22 SS officers who helped run Auschwitz starts in Frankfurt in late 1963. Two years later, after 183 court sessions, German judges sentence six of the accused to life in prison; 13 to sentences of three to 14 years; and acquit three.
There is a short scene in the movie in which a Mossad agent, pretending to be a Jerusalem Post reporter, meets with Bauer and Radmann to learn what German authorities know about Adolf Eichmann’s whereabouts in Argentina.
According to Giulio Ricciarelli, 50, the movie’s director and co-writer, Bauer knew exactly where Eichmann was hiding, and passing on this information to Israel made the capture of the war criminal possible. Bauer wanted the Eichmann trial to be held in Germany rather than in Israel, but German authorities declined, Ricciarelli, who was born in Germany, said.
He believes that the Auschwitz trial was the initial catalyst in forcing the German people to confront their past, but it took, curiously enough, the visual and dramatic impact of movies and television to bring home to most Germans the full extent of the Holocaust.
For instance, according to German surveys, while 40 percent of Germans followed the Auschwitz trial, a full 95 percent were glued to their TV sets during the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.
In 1978, the NBC miniseries “Holocaust” was a must-see in Germany and throughout Europe, while in 1993 “Schindler’s List” powerfully impressed a rising new generation of Germans.
In “Labyrinth of Lies,” the role of prosecuting attorney Johann Radmann is played by popular German actor Alexander Fehling, best known in the United States as the Wehrmacht soldier Sgt. Wilhelm in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”
“Radmann is a composite figure of three young prosecutors in the actual trial,” Ricciarelli said in a phone interview.
The only historical figure whose real name and persona are retained in the film is Fritz Bauer, whose strong yet tortured personality is skillfully presented by Gert Voss, one of Germany’s leading classical actors, who died shortly after the film wrapped.
Ricciarelli said he saw photos of the Holocaust when he was 8, and “was destroyed. I still cannot understand how ‘normal people,’ who prided themselves in living in ‘the land of poets and thinkers,’ could do such things.”
The SS men of Auschwitz were brought to trial mainly through tedious paperwork, an activity hard to dramatize on film, so Ricciarelli somewhat lightens the mood by introducing a love story between Radmann and a fetching young woman.
Although he skirts dangerously close to hokeyness in one or two scenes, the director shows considerable sensitivity in portraying the victims of the Holocaust.
“Labyrinth of Lies” opens Sept. 30 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles.