New German Film Revisits Groundbreaking Auschwitz Trials
by Laura Davis
Johann Radmann is a young prosecutor hungry for justice. In the new German film Labyrinth of Lies, Radmann decides to prosecute Nazi soldiers for their crimes in the concentration camps, nearly 20 years after the end of World War II. With the help of prosecutor general Fritz Bauer and journalist Thomas Gnielka, Radmann is able to sift through thousands of files, find evidence and continue with the Auschwitz trials, forcing Germany to confront its past as it never had before.
The film is a fictionalized account of the real-life Auschwitz trials that took place between 1963 and 1965. Fritz Bauer, the prosecutor general, played an essential role in the landmark Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, in which 22 camp officials were tried for their roles in the Holocaust. The character of Radmann is a composite of three actual junior prosecutors: Joachim Kugler, Georg Friedrich Vogel and Gerhard Wiese. Director Giulio Ricciarelli talked with Moment‘s Laura Davis about the making of the movie and how the trials changed present-day Germany.
How did you come up with the idea for the film? What was the research process like?
I wrote the script with Elizabeth Parkins—she had read an article in the newspaper about the trial, and I was looking for a story for my feature film. My first reaction was that I didn’t believe the story. So I started reading more and the research that was already there. When I realized it was a true story I was hooked. So we decided that we would write the script and I would direct it.
Why did you decide to portray the emotions through the actors, rather than show the facts?
We were making a movie about the way Germany dealt with the Holocaust rather than the Holocaust itself. This is a subject that is so iconic. Everybody’s seen so many movies about it, what we wanted to was to not tell it directly but let the audience be emotional, give them the space to let the stories and history they know come up. You’re not beaten down by another scene in the camp or a testimony, but you have a canvas for your own emotions, you’re drawn into the film.
What impact do you think the trials had on Germany?
One cannot overestimate the impact they had on German history. Everybody wanted to deny the crimes, push them under the rug. But the individuals wanted Germany to look. The whole meticulous way of dealing with the past that Germany is known for today in movies and education started then.
What kind of impact do you think your film will have on Germany’s reputation for dealing with the aftermath of the Holocaust?
I hope the movie does what any good movie does—that it’s an emotional journey, a ride that the audience can take. It has worth in itself, and I think it does a good job to make the story of the Auschwitz trials and Fitz Bauer known. Not many people know about it. I didn’t know about it. It’s almost a forgotten story. Even in Germany the trials aren’t known. Realistically about 10% know about the trials, they didn’t know the name Fritz Bauer. As myself they had a wrong sense of history. Before I started working on the film I would have said, there was the holocaust and after ’45 Germany started dealing with it’s past. And the truth is, after ’45 for almost 20 years Germany did almost everything in it’s power to sweep it under the rug, deny it, and then a handful of individuals forced society to change.
Do you think after the trials, people who were adults during the Holocaust were able to admit to what happened in the past?
The general feeling during the trial was one of, nobody wanted this trial. The chancellor of Germany didn’t want this trial, the powers didn’t want this trial, the whole German society was the same. The Nazis hadn’t left, they were still in government, still in schools. The whole society didn’t want it but a few good men pushed through with it. That was the beginning of the change. It wasn’t an immediate change in Germany, but that was the beginning. I firmly believe that dealing with the past was extremely important for Germany to become a nation among nations again. I don’t want to imagine a country that hadn’t gone through this.
How do you hope your film will resonate with younger viewers?
I hope that for the younger generation it’s about the power of the individual. To actually push society forward, that is a timeless message. It’s hard to believe but if not an individual, then who? Even if it’s one person saying let’s do this, there are people following of course. Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, all individuals who had a movement behind them, but they were individuals.
When Gerhard Wiese visited the set, was it emotional for him?
Wiese was a very nice man. He’s 87. His life’s work was forgotten. He was one of the young prosecutors. That was an essential work of his life. So it was very moving to have this old man and suddenly there’s press, he’s at opening night. It was almost like someone flew to the moon, nobody applauded, and then 50 years later, suddenly everybody says, ‘You were one of those?’ So it was quite moving.
Did you get to discuss the making of the movie with him?
We talked with him and Joachim Kruegler, one of the prosecutors who has passed away. There were three prosecutors in the first trial. We talked with him to get the facts but also to find emotional nuggets that you can then use when writing the script. For example, Kruegler was so disgusted with the German justice system that he quit being a prosecutor and became a defense lawyer, defending war criminals. When I talked to Wiese I realized how lonely he must have felt. That generation isn’t emotional, they don’t talk about stuff as much. Wiese wasn’t an open book emotionally but when I talked to him I could feel how lonely he must have felt during these long years. The whole country was blooming, it was the 60s, everybody was going forward, building things, becoming rich or prosperous, and here he was a district attorney, a smart, educated man looking at the past. It’s a job where you’re confronted every day with horrors. Imagine every day for ten years, always reading these testimonies, dealing with atrocities, it must have been an incredibly tasking experience. This loneliness and rawness, we tried to give it to the character.