“Labyrinth of Lies”– Germany’s nominee for this year’s Academy Award for best foreign language film– opens in New York and Los Angeles on September 30, with a national roll-out in October.
At its dramatic core is a young West German prosecutor, Johann Radmann (portrayed by Alexander Fehling — an up and coming German actor, pictured above), working against a maze of deceit and denial to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. This is a fictionalized account of the investigation that led to the 1963 trial of 22 defendants who were SS guards at Auschwitz, represented in its closing notes onscreen as the first time a country prosecuted its own for war crimes.
This paralleled the almost concurrent apprehension and trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, which the film touched upon. In both countries, these trials opened up what had been almost a taboo against discussing the Holocaust. Until the Eichmann trial, Holocaust survivors in Israel were largely silent, ashamed of their victimhood, because they exemplified the defenseless Jew that was antithetical to the traditional Zionist ethos of the “new” physically strong and self-confident Jew.
In one scene, Radmann emotionally goes from person to person asking if they’ve ever heard of Auschwitz, with not one responding affirmatively. But the real story does not involve this fictional figure, who is a composite of two young attorneys (later joined by a third) who conducted the prosecution.
If this were a documentary, the focus would be primarily on the older character who encouraged this effort, Fritz Bauer, a true-life German Jew and a Social Democratic Party (SPD) activist who went into exile in Denmark and later joined Willy Brandt– the SPD leader and first left-wing chancellor of West Germany– in neutral Sweden. According to PPI’s Arieh Lebowitz, the associate director of the Jewish Labor Committee in his day job, Bauer was aided materially by the JLC — as were many other social democratic politicians and labor union leaders who struggled to survive during the Nazi era.
Upon returning to Germany, Bauer chose to work in the judiciary rather than in electoral politics. In 1944, while still in exile, Bauer published a book whose title expressed his most earnest hope, to Prosecute the War Criminals. He became the attorney general of the West German state of Hesse, the larger jurisdiction under which the Auschwitz prosecutors did their work in the city of Frankfurt am Main. Bauer passed away in 1968, but public and private contributions established a foundation in his name, the Fritz Bauer Institute, in Frankfurt in 1995, dedicated to research, social dialogue and public education on Holocaust-era crimes and related civil rights issues.
The remarkable German repentance over its role in the Holocaust dates from the trial. Most Germans had taken the attitude of the hostile Frankfurt chief prosecutor, who explains in the film that while held in an Allied Prisoner of War camp, he and his fellow POWs were shown films of Nazi atrocities, which they all discounted as anti-German war propaganda.
But the trial changed all this. West German culture was transformed, with the younger generations challenging their parents and grandparents about what they did in the war and if they were Nazis.
This film debuts in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 30, with a national roll-out in October. For more detail, read my somewhat longer and differently edited review at the Jewish Currents magazine website. Click on its title: “How Germany’s Post-Holocaust Redemption Began.”