Just when you think you’ve seen all the stories that could possibly emanate from World War II and its aftermath, another comes along—like this one—that invites one to say, “Why didn’t I know about this before?” Labyrinth of Lies begins in 1958, when many Germans had never heard of Auschwitz, believe it or not. The story centers on a young, ambitious public prosecutor (Alexander Fehling) who learns that a former Nazi officer at the notorious concentration camp is now working as a schoolteacher in Frankfurt. He insists that the man be arrested and soon learns that there is a conspiracy of silence among pubic officials who would rather let sleeping dogs lie.
The movie works because it isn’t a polemic. It creates interesting, three-dimensional characters and situations. Fehling is well-cast as the hero, a naïve young man whose moral outrage is completely credible. The character is actually a composite of three real-life figures who worked on this case. There are times when we in the audience are one jump ahead of him, more willing to believe the worst than he is, but screenwriters Giulio Ricciarelli (who also directed) and Elisabeth Bartel do a good job of making him relatable and not merely a figurehead.
Depending on how much you know of post-war Germany, the film also offers revelations: in spite of the famous Nuremberg Trials, no “ordinary people” had been prosecuted for their crimes during the war. The German government allowed Josef Mengele to come and go from Argentina at will to visit his family. And preparations for what became the Auschwitz Trials gave survivors the first opportunity to voice their experiences and be recognized. That, the head prosecutor explains to our hero, is what the trials are all about—not punishment so much as acknowledgment.
I wish the movie’s title wasn’t so obvious and on-the-nose (in Germany it’s called Labyrinth of Silence, which is no improvement). I’m aware that many critics feel the same way about the picture itself, with “earnest” being the kindest word in their reviews. But I found it thoroughly absorbing, a worthwhile movie that frames its agenda in a well-rounded dramatic narrative. The subject matter is timeless and its message as relevant as ever.