Auschwitz, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, opened in 1940 and was the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps. Located in Southern Poland, Auschwitz initially served as a detention center for political prisoners. However, it evolved into a network of camps where Jewish people and other perceived enemies of the Nazi state were exterminated, often in gas chambers, or used as slave labor. Some prisoners were also subjected to barbaric medical experiments led by Josef Mengele (1911-79). During World War II (1939-45), more than 1 million people, by some accounts, lost their lives at Auschwitz. In January 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, Nazi officials ordered the camp abandoned and sent an estimated 60,000 prisoners on a forced march to other locations. When the Soviets entered Auschwitz, they found thousands of emaciated detainees and piles of corpses left behind. (Cited from History.com.)
Less than 15 years after WWII, thousands of former Nazis went about their lives in Germany; unchallenged, unpunished. They were not challenged by their neighbors. The citizens of Germany were eager to put their country's past behind them. Most people put their heads down and focused on taking care of their jobs and families.
Labyrinth of Lies focuses on how, in a country trying to forget, the German legal system eventually went after some of the Nazis that worked at Auschwitz. Alexander Fehlig (Inglourious Basterds) plays Johann Radmann, a composite of three prosecutors who ended up participating in the 1963-65 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials.
The docudrama, in German with subtitles, is directed by Giulio Ricciarelli, who co-wrote the screenplay with Elisabeth Bartel. The filmmaker and his writing partner not only opt to make the lead character a composite, they throw in a fictitious romance as well. I understand their decisions, even if I don't agree with them. Jumping back and forth between three prosecutors would have made the film more difficult to follow. Adding a romance gives them somewhere to go for respite from the long, frustrating search for justice. The resultant film has been well-received enough that Germany has made it a selection for the Best Foreign Film category in the upcoming Academy Awards competition.
I'd have preferred a screenplay that followed all three men, because when a movie tweaks the truth in one area, everything else becomes suspect. That said, the film works well enough even if viewed solely as supposition between two sets of facts. We know what Auschwitz was. We know that 22 Germans were eventually tried. And we know Mengele died a free man at age 67 in Brazil. Labyrinth of Lies is a useful exercise in fact-based speculation on how Germany moved from being a state of denial to becoming one that put 22 of its own on trial for their crimes as Nazis. The glaring question that remains is how they only charged 22 at the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. But then, according to Auschwitz: A New History, only 789 of the approximately 6,500 surviving SS personnel that served at Auschwitz were tried for their crimes anywhere.
I've been sitting in front of the keyboard trying to come up with a closing paragraph that wraps up this piece, but the statistics keep crashing in my head, so I'll just say this: As a movie, Labyrinth of Lies has problems, but it's an informative reminder of something we must never forget.
Opening: Friday, Keystone Art