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Movie Review

‘Labyrinth’ loses its way

Alexander Fehling stars as a German prosecutor in “Labyrinth of Lies.”
Alexander Fehling stars as a German prosecutor in “Labyrinth of Lies.”(Heike Ullrich/Sony Pictures Classics)

Some of the Oscar contenders this year, like the upcoming “Spotlight” (opening Nov. 6), about this newspaper’s investigation into the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, and “Truth” (opening Oct. 30), about a “60 Minutes” investigation into George Bush’s National Guard service, dramatize efforts to expose the sins of the powerful and bring them to justice.
Add to that group the German official entry for best foreign language film, Giulio Ricciarelli’s account of the 1962 Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, “Labyrinth of Lies.”

It’s not a winner.

Formulaic and uninspired, it confronts an evil that eclipses the subjects of “Spotlight” and “Truth”: the collective guilt of the German people for the crimes of the Third Reich. And underneath its mea culpas lies a subtext that exonerates the post-Third Reich generations of its past.

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Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) — a fictitious composite of two real-life participants in the trial — embodies the first of those generations. It’s 1958 in Frankfurt and he’s a rookie prosecutor stuck handling traffic offenses. One of his first cases is Marlene (Friederike Becht). He convicts her, but then pays her fine! Always best to start out a film about the Holocaust with a meet-cute.

A visit to the court by real-life journalist Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski) stirs Radmann’s conscience — and ambition. Gnielka has proof that a former Auschwitz SS guard is now teaching kids at a local grammar school. The DA rejects the case, but Radmann, who’s never heard of Auschwitz, pursues it. He’s encouraged by prosecutor general Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), the real hero of the story, a Jew who escaped the Reich and returned to help reform the country.

But like many Hollywood films about injustice against minorities in which the hero is a white guy, the protagonist of “Labyrinth” is the Aryan, made-up Radmann. And oh how he suffers to uncover the truth. It’s not just one bad apple he must prosecute, but thousands who served at the death camp. The crimes are unspeakable. And it seems as though everyone in power is a former Nazi and is impeding his investigation.

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He starts drinking. He alienates Marlene. Will his crusade even make a difference? Judging from this film, not a lot.

Movie Review

★ ★

LABYRINTH OF LIES

Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli. Written by Ricciarelli and Elisabeth Bartel. Starring Alexander Fehling, Andre Szymanski, Friederike Becht, Johannes Krisch. At Kendall Square, West Newton, Danvers. 123 minutes.

R (a scene of sexuality).

In German, with subtitles.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.