It’s pretty common knowledge that Germany worked to distance itself from Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime after World War II, including making the display of the Nazi swastika illegal. Still, I have to admit that Labyrinth of Lies clued me in on how much Germany wanted to distance itself from the atrocities of World War II: for decades, many German citizens did not know about Nazi concentration camps.
Think about that for a moment. Not a year or two. Decades.
It wasn’t until the early 1960s that most citizens became aware of this horrendous truth. Labyrinth of Lies focuses on that period, from the point of view of a young, idealistic prosecutor named Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling). Radmann decides to follow up on a tip from Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), an Auschwitz survivor who recently crossed the path of a former SS guard now working as a schoolteacher.
Radmann is unaware of what took place at Auschwitz (and as the film reminds the audience, Auschwitz was in Poland, not Germany). Nevertheless, he’s compelled by Kirsch’s story, and using the power of the law, attempts to prosecute the teacher – only to face strong resistance from people in power above him. Undeterred, he begins to dig deeper into the history of Auschwitz, but his youthful naïveté isn’t prepared for what he discovers. At one point, a witness tells him that hundreds of thousands of people died at Auschwitz; Radmann picks up a pen and asks for a list of names of victims. The response from the witness, incredulously: “It was a factory.”
While Radmann is on a quest for justice, he becomes more disheartened as he discovers just how many people were involved in Germany’s atrocious acts. Many of the higher-ranking former Nazis have connections to the government, rendering them untouchable. Radmann also discovers, to his growing shock, that people close to him also have connections to the acts of World War II.
Labyrinth of Lies offers up a part of German history many outside of that nation may not know, and it leads up to the Frankfurt-Auschwitz trials that took place between 1963 and 1965. Radmann, an original character composed of the three lawyers who brought these atrocities to light in Germany, is played excellently by Fehling, who’s able to convey Radmann’s idealism and the way it’s shattered by his discoveries. He’s surrounded by a strong cast, particularly Gert Voss as Fritz Bauer, the actual lead prosecutor in the trials who serves as Radmann’s supportive superior here.
Not all of the film works. A love story is thrown in between Radmann and a young dressmaker named Marlene (Friederike Becht). Later on, Radmann becomes obsessed with capturing the infamous Josef Mengele, in a storyline that drags in part because it’s known that Mengele died years later in South America.
Still, when focused on the central plot of the film, Labyrinth of Lies is an unsettling portrait of an entire society in deep denial with its past, and how hard that denial can be to break.