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'Labyrinth of Lies'' hunt for Nazis: Compelling topic, clunky approach

'Labyrinth of Lies'' hunt for Nazis: Compelling topic, clunky approach
Alexander Fehling as a prosecutor in "Labyrinth of Lies." (Sony Pictures Classics)

The historical backdrop for the German legal thriller "Labyrinth of Lies" is morally fascinating and little-explored: A late-1950s Germany, on the economic rebound, is hesitant to bring to justice the aging Nazis still living in its midst. The movie that this history has inspired, however — Germany's official selection this year for the foreign-language film Oscar — is as mechanical and schematic as a court proceeding.

Designed to draw us into a time when the scope of wartime atrocities was unknown, hidden or conveniently set aside, director and co-writer Giulio Ricciarelli frames his tale around the heroic journey of a fictionalized young do-gooder prosecutor, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling). After learning that a former SS member and Auschwitz sadist teaches at a state-run school, Radmann and crusading real-life journalist Thomas Gnielka (Andre Szymanski) attempt to locate as many ex-Auschwitz war criminals as possible in order to try them for the only remaining prosecutable offense: individual murder.

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It's an uphill battle, though, for no matter how many eyewitness accounts are collected, or damning papers retrieved from dusty file rooms or potential defendants plucked from the citizenry, the pressure not to pick at the scab is immense. In denying Radmann help, one colleague growls, "Do you want every young man in this country to wonder whether his father was a murderer?"

That question is never allowed to germinate, however, because Ricciarelli is like a hammer, treating every story thread and emotional beat like a nail. A protracted hunt for Josef Mengele (the movie's overarching villain) feels like artificially ratcheted-up tension. Elsewhere, Radmann is given a boring romantic interest (Friederike Becht) who's mostly a plot convenience through which to introduce the personal consequences of workplace obsession. Queasier still is a montage of survivors giving testimony during which we see talking but hear only the bombastic score — a sequence about giving voice inexplicably rendered without voice.

Even as a sporadically arresting do-gooder's saga, "Labyrinth of Lies" suffers under Fehling's lackluster performance, hardly nurtured when the direction is so willfully propulsive.

The horrors of Auschwitz defy most movie dramatization. But while the impetus here is sturdy — a defeated, vilified Germany's complicated postwar conscience — "Labyrinth of Lies" too often feels like machine-stamped issue cinema from a moldy Hollywood playbook.

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'Labyrinth of Lies'

MPAA rating: R for a scene of sexuality

Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles

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