The passionate, if occasionally inert, Labyrinth of Lies relates the events that led to the 1963-65 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, the first public prosecution of rank-and-file Nazis in post-WWII Germany. Giulio Ricciarelli’s docudrama, released on the 50th anniversary of the trials’ conclusion, is a kind of didactic police procedural, whose dramatic twists and revelations are meant to teach the audience how little the average German knew about the scope and pervasiveness of Nazi atrocities until the start of the trials. It serves as a suitably dignified account of the efforts of regular Germans to finally bring at least some of the Nazis in their midst to justice, but it only scratches the surface of the mass psychological wounds and trauma that the trials unleashed on the Germany psyche, whose effects are still being processed.
At the start of the film, public prosecutor Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), tired of trying minor traffic offenses, is suddenly appointed by Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), attorney general, to lead an investigation into atrocities committed by German soldiers in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Radmann’s efforts are met with derision and even outright hostility by his colleagues and acquaintances, who doubt the veracity of the seemingly exaggerated accusations of the camp’s survivors and witnesses. Unlike the real-life Bauer and Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski), the journalist who first brings the existence of Auschwitz to Radmann’s attention, Radmann is a composite of several real attorneys. His fictional nature allows the filmmakers to depict him as an innocent tabula rasa, a stand-in for the presumed ignorance of the average German at the time.
Radmann’s at times implausible naïveté means that every new piece of information is a revelation to him; the audience, in effect, learns about Nazi crimes and their subsequent cover-ups alongside him. This is a useful enough pedagogic device, but it ultimately transforms Radmann into a mere receptive vessel. Impossibly enthusiastic and perseverant, the character is good at discovering the facts on our behalf, but too banal to almost single-handedly bear the weight of the film’s plot, which includes an extraneous romantic storyline with an attractive dressmaker. Their gentle, dignified sex is meant to represent their innocent, normative decency, which runs counter to the film’s message that it was precisely average Germans like them that committed atrocities in Auschwitz and elsewhere. There are scenes that hint at the filmmakers’ awareness of this conundrum, as Radmann briefly descends to alcoholism and self-interest, but then just as quickly returns to his former implacable self, having decided after all that, for some reason, that young Germans like him are totally different from their parents’ generation.
Still, Labyrinth of Lies remains an important reminder of the evil that lurks within all men, ready to be unleashed under the proper circumstances. If its ultimate stance on the nature of this evil is muddled, it displays a subtle enough understanding of how Cold War politics allowed Nazi criminals to go largely unpunished after the war. With many former Nazis still in positions of vital political and economic importance as a result of both American and Soviet resistance or indifference to large-scale denazification, what these prosecutors were able to accomplish remains nothing short of heroic.