The movie details the arduous research and highly determined prosecution of murder charges against hiding-in-plain-sight Nazi murderers in late 1950s West Germany. Unlike the famous Nuremberg trials by the Allies against surviving members of the Nazi high command, the so-called Auschwitz trials were prosecuted by Germans themselves against fellow countrymen.
And, crucially, against strong opposition within not only their own ranks but others in positions of influence, these handful of public prosecutors went after SS soldiers and other workers at Auschwitz who insisted they were only ‘“following orders.”
To tease out drama from the task of tracking down witnesses and researching the Nazi’s meticulously kept records of their own inhumanity, Italian-born German director Giulio Ricciarelli and co-writer Elizabeth Bartel create a fictional hero in the fresh-faced, naive young public prosecutor, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling).
In 1958 Frankfurt am Main he is new on the job and handling traffic offenses as the filmmaker pick up his story. He is, in fact, a composite of three actual public prosecutors but is surrounded by many actual real-life characters.
The dour though prosperous faces and new though formal suits and dresses of that era speak to the economic miracle of the post-war Federal Republic, thanks in large measure to American largess — and its willingness to deeply bury a mountain of evidence that nearly every male of a certain age walking down a German street has a guilty past.
Nazis were everywhere, in every kind of job and walk of life. Only Johann seems oblivious to the fact, being a young man who, charmingly, is still waiting for the return of his father who disappeared somewhere on the eastern front over 15 years before.
By sheerest chance he happens to overhear a commotion in the lobby of his office building where journalist Thomas Gnielka (André Syzmanski) is trying to help his artist friend Simon (Johannes Krisch), an Auschwitz survivor, report his chance discovery that a former SS commander is teaching at the local Gymnasium.
No one is interested in this unsurprising fact. No one other than Johann, that is.
He meets immediate resistance in his own office. Through somewhat serendipitous circumstances — the filmmakers go heavily into fiction whenever they get a chance — Johann and Gnielka come by actual proof of Auschwitz murders. His real break is that Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), his highest superior, is willing to let him lead the investigation into Auschwitz.
Today, of course, that name is among the most infamous in world history. But — and this is where the movie proves so fascinating — back in the ’50s not only was what happened at Auschwitz virtually unknown in Germany no one anywhere else in the world knew much about it either.
By now though the movie has to buckle down to scenes of interviews, men sorting through huge stacks of records and looks of shock on the faces of people who literally had no idea of what Auschwitz meant.
Bauer warns Johann that this investigation is a labyrinth and admonishes him: “Don’t lose yourself in it’.” Naturally Johann does — and so does the film.
The movie takes time out to follow an on-and-off romance between Johann and dress designer Marlene (Friederike Becht) and a crisis of conscience uncharacteristically suffered by Johann when he realizes what he should have realized at the beginning: If Nazis are everywhere then nearly everyone’s father was a Nazi and that includes your own.
The movie also gets somewhat sidetracked by Johann’s growing obsession with the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. Since the Auschwitz camp doctor frequently visited relatives in Germany from his hiding place in South America, Johann goes against his own superior’s order to, in True-Spy fashion, waylay Mengele at his father’s funeral.
A lot of screen time gets eaten up by this. Since everyone knows Mengele was never brought to justice this interjection of melodrama comes off as a sideshow of increasing irrelevance. The same holds true for an unrewarding visit to the death camp itself.
The overall problem with the film though is that a viewer is very much interested in how the horror of Auschwitz came to light in the postwar world, but has little investment in the mostly fictional characters doing the heavy lifting.
The actors are all fine with Fehling managing to convince you of his incredible naiveté and Szymanski providing something of the moral conscience for the movie.
Opens September 25, 2015 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production companies: Claussen + Woebke + Putz Filmproduktion, Naked Eye Filmproduction
Cast: Alexander Fehling, Andre Szymanski, Friederike Becht, Johannes Kirsch, Hansi Jochmann, Johann von Buelow, Robert Hunger-Buehler, Lukas Miko, Gert Voss
Director: Giulio Ricciarelli
Screenplay: Elisabeth Bartel, Giulio Ricciarelli
Producers: Uli Putz, Sabine Lamby, Jakob Claussen
Director of photography: Martin Langer, Roman Osin
Production designer: Manfred Doering
Music: Niki Reiser, Sebastian Pille
Costume designer: Aenne Plaumann
Editor: Andrea Mertens
R rating, 123 minutes