Arts and Culture

‘Labyrinth of Lies’ film explores Holocaust denial in postwar Germany

Alexander Fehling in "Labyrinth of Lies," Germany's entry in the 2016 Academy Awards. (Sony Pictures Classics)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) – When the German film “Labyrinth of Lies” opens, Hitler’s Third Reich was defeated only 13 years earlier. Germany is rising from the ruins, but in 1958 its people are largely in a state of forgetfulness and denial about the recent past.

Ask the man in the street about millions of Jews exterminated in SS concentration camps and he’ll tell you that’s “Greuelpropaganda,” horror propaganda, invented by the enemy.

Auschwitz? What’s that?

What about the Nuremberg Trials of war criminals? Well, that’s just the winners judging the losers, as after every war.

Today — when the German government and people have accepted full responsibility for the murder of 6 million Jews — it’s hard to fathom the German mindset in the immediate postwar years.

The first chink in the wall of denial was the so-called Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, from 1963 to 1965, in which the German government prosecuted 22 people who helped run the death camp. “Labyrinth of Lies,” though fictionalized, explores how the trial — which triggered a gradual transformation of the German mindset — came to be.

“I thought the story was incredible and I couldn’t believe that many Germans in the late 1950s had never heard of Auschwitz,” the film’s director, Giulio Ricciarelli, said in an interview. “But actually, after the end of World War II, there was an attempt to silence the dark past.”

Originally and more aptly titled “Labyrinth of Silence,” the film illustrates Germany’s transformation over the last half-century. The film, which was written and performed by German artists, was selected as the country’s official Academy Awards entry in the foreign-language film competition.

“Labyrinth of Lies” explores a favorite cinematic theme: the young idealist going up against an entrenched bureaucratic power structure.

The stubborn truth-seeker here is the young German lawyer Johann Radmann — a composite of three of the real-life prosecutors in the trials — who has just been hired as a junior prosecutor by the attorney general for the German state of Hesse. He is played by Alexander Fehling, best known in the United States as Wehrmacht soldier Sgt. Wilhelm in “Inglourious Basterds.

In the film, Radmann quickly tires of dealing with traffic offenses. He 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 (a real person who eventually plays a key role in the trials, played by Gert Voss), wearily explains that the statue of limitations prevents the prosecution of anyone except those personally convicted of actual murder during the Hitler era.

As a Jew and a socialist, Bauer himself spent some months in a concentration camp when the Nazis came to power, then went abroad and returned after the war. He tells his naive young colleague that the entire German civil service is replete with former ardent Nazis, but it would be an impossible job to bring them to justice.

However, Radmann keeps digging for bigger game than the teacher. In an especially emotional scene, he meets a Jewish survivor whose twin daughters died during one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s “experiments.” The survivor possesses an official list with the names of all the SS guards who served in Auschwitz, but 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 Radmann to peruse them at his leisure.

Radmann gets no help from the German authorities. He is told that every suspect insists that he had no choice but to follow orders and, in any case, does Radmann really want every young man in Germany to wonder whether his father was a murderer?

While battling indifference everywhere he turns, Radmann discovers to his horror 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 begins in Frankfurt in late 1963. Two years and 183 court sessions later, German judges sentenced six of the accused to life in prison and 13 to sentences ranging from three to 14 years. Three were acquitted.

Ricciarelli 50, is the son of an Italian father and a German mother. Growing up in Germany, he first saw photos of the Holocaust when he was 8 and “was destroyed,” he said.

“I still cannot understand how ‘normal people,’ who prided themselves in living in ‘the land of poets and thinkers,’ could do such things,” the director said.

The SS men of Auschwitz were brought to trial mainly through tedious paperwork — an activity that’s challenging to dramatize on film. To quicken its pace, Ricciarelli lightens the mood somewhat by introducing a love story between Radmann and a feisty young woman.

Ricciarelli shows considerable sensitivity in portraying the victims of the Holocaust, though some Jewish viewers may wince when the very gentile Radmann fulfills a promise by reciting the Kaddish prayer for mourners, in Hebrew, on the grounds of Auschwitz.

The well-acted film is intriguing as one man’s battle for the truth. It resonates with particular importance for postwar generations, which must reckon with the Nazi era and its immediate aftermath from a distance of 70 years.

“Labyrinth of Lies” is showing in New York and Los Angeles; a national rollout follows.