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film review

Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann, a young prosecutor fighting traffic violations until a crusading journalist rubs his nose in the reality of post-war Germany: An Auschwitz guard is teaching elementary school nearby.Heike Ullrich

In the Frankfurt of 1958, the public prosecutor's office is located in a light-filled modernist office building, where wrought-iron staircases float in a space of open floors and big windows. The women wear full skirts in bright colours; the men are dapper in dark suits and slim ties. This just and peaceable new Germany, as chic as any episode of Mad Men, is overseen by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the benign boss who can be trusted, as we overhear some passerby remark in the opening scenes of Labyrinth of Lies, to fix whatever problem may arise.

And behind this airy contemporary façade lies Holocaust guilt. Labyrinth is a fictional account – based on the actual events that led to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial – of a young prosecutor who dares to pursue war criminals in a post-Nuremberg climate of denial. Hearing war-crimes charges under German rather than international law for the first time, the trial leads to the successful prosecution of a handful of SS officers who had served at the notorious death camp and so thrusts the Holocaust into public view. Labyrinth of Lies, Germany's official entry for the foreign-language Oscar, creates a composite prosecutor to serve as an avenging hero worthy of Hollywood.

Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) is an upright young prosecutor fighting traffic violations until the crusading journalist Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski) rubs his nose in the reality of post-war Germany: An Auschwitz guard is teaching elementary school nearby. Radmann is slowly drawn into the case despite his senior colleagues' ostentatious lack of interest, warnings from the American military record office not to waste his time and the outright obfuscation of the federal police. He finds an ally in the attorney general Fritz Bauer – the late Gert Voss plays a hugely sympathetic supporting role as the one actual historic figure in the film – but the young lawman risks losing his protector when he becomes completely distracted by the possibility of landing a bigger fish: Josef Mengele.

The script, the plot and the pacing are largely predictable as the righteous hero pursues the truth at increasing personal cost. In a society deeply in denial about its participation in Nazism, Radmann falls in love with the aspiring couturière Marlene (Friederike Becht), but eventually his work comes between them as he is forced to recognize that former Nazis are everywhere.

These aspects of the film, if not banal, are certainly conventional, but two things make Labyrinth of Lies stand out. One is Fehling's notable performance as the awakening Radmann. Blond, steely-eyed and stiff-backed, he is the perfect picture of the Teutonic god on which Nazism once placed its fondest hopes, now – with a crucial birth date of 1930 – reincarnated as a genuinely good German. He is right but also self-righteous, annoyingly so until Gneilka and Marlene soften him with philosophy, music and sex. As the implications of the case come closer and closer to home, Fehling's portrait of Radmann's emotional disintegration – the thickening skin, the blurry eye, the drunken lurch – is remarkable.

While Radmann's relationship with Simon (Johannes Krisch), a man whose twin daughters were victims of Mengele's grotesque experiments, is often implausible, the other thing that stands out is director Giulio Ricciarelli's larger way of revealing the horrors of the Holocaust, not only to the naive Raddman but also to his secretary (Hansi Joachmann provides some highly effective and largely silent supporting work in that role.) Ricciarelli brings witness after witness into that lovely office building without ever – after the first bit of testimony – letting us hear what they say. Instead, we get choral music, the secretary's tears as she sits at her steno desk and the appalling blankness of Radmann's face.

The movie is a strong account of a lesser-known episode of post-Holocaust history raised above its obvious cinematic formula by Fehling's anchoring performance and the film's wise approach to the survivors' horrific testimony.