The movie Labyrinth Of Lies begins in 1958. The young public prosecutor Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) is at the very start of his career and, like all beginners, is sent to work on traffic offenses. The ambitious, idealistic jurist always strictly follows the law and does not even turn a blind eye to the enchanting traffic offender Marlene Wondrak (Friederike Becht). Nevertheless, he gives her 20 marks of his own money so that she can pay her fine. Outraged, she calls him a nitpicker. And Johann? He’s head over heels in love!
When the journalist Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski) makes a ruckus in the lobby of the Public Prosecutor’s office, Johann Radmann pricks up his ears: By chance, Gnielka’s friend Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), an artist and former Auschwitz inmate, recognized the Gymnasium teacher Alois Schulz as one of his tormenters from the concentration camp, but no police station wants to file a complaint. The Public Prosecutor’s office also refuses to investigate, and Senior Public Prosecutor Walter Friedberg (Robert Hunger-Bühler)
brusquely shows Gnielka and Kirsch the door. Only Johann pays no attention to his superiors’ orders. Curious, he begins to investigate the matter on his own.
Johann’s research in the school board and U.S. Army Document Center proves that Schulz actually was a member of the Waffen SS in Auschwitz –and that this was the reason why he was not allowed to teach in a state-run school. When Johann reports about this at the weekly get-together of public prosecutors, Friedberg reluctantly promises to pass the case on to the Ministry of Culture. During a chance meeting with Gnielka at the courthouse, Johann proudly reports that he has successfully taken care of the matter. But Gnielka doubts that Schulz was truly suspended from his duties. And he notes that Johann –like most people of his generation – have absolutely no idea what “Auschwitz” truly was. “A shame,” as Gnielka sees it.
To remedy this information gap, Johann tries to find out more about Auschwitz. This turns out to be anything but easy, since the library tells him that the sole available book on the topic would have to be ordered, which would mean a wait of at least two months. Sneaking into the Gymnasium, Johann sees that Gnielka’s doubts were justified: Schulz continues to teach there without any impediment. In the meantime, Gnielka has resorted to action and stolen the Schulz file from Johann’s office. He then publishes a fiery article
about this “unspeakable scandal” in the Frankfurter Rundschau. As a consequence, Johann is requested to appear at the office of the Hessian Prosecutor General Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss). Although he can convincingly assure his highest superior that he did not give the
journalist any documents concerning internal matters, what he hears from Bauer makes himfeel anything but optimistic: Bauer makes it absolutely clear that the civil service is still permeated with Nazi sympathizers and executors, who have practically nothing to worry about, since their offenses have expired under the statute of limitations.
All their offenses–except murder. Without concrete proof of murder, a former war criminal cannot be put on trial and called to account.
Gnielka apologizes to Johann for stealing the files and invites him to a party in his flat. There Johannis agreeably surprised to meet up with Marlene Wondrak again –and the sparks immediately start flying between the two. This time, no traffic offense can prevent them from getting closer. Also among the guests at the party is Simon Kirsch, who drinks too much and has to be brought home late at night by Johann and Gnielka. They want to help him with his request for financial compensation, and go through his private papers.
There they accidentally discover an official list containing the names of SS men who served in Auschwitz. They immediately show the list to Fritz Bauer, who realizes how explosive this document is: the names of the perpetrators of Auschwitz –just what had always been missing for them to take action against possible individual perpetrators. Without losing any time, Bauer entrusts Johann with the direction of all further investigations. However, he warns him: “This is a labyrinth. Don’t lose yourself in it!”
Johann throws himself heart and soul into his new task, burrows through endless piles of documents and begins searching specifically for the names of victims and witnesses. With the help of Hermann Langbein (Lukas Miko), the Secretary General of the International Auschwitz Committee, he finally succeeds in questioning the first witnesses. Shattered by an emotional testimony, Johann begins to imagine just how vast was the scope of the deeds that were committed in Auschwitz. And it becomes clear to him that there is a long road ahead if he wants to responsibly accomplish his mission and bring the guilty to justice.
The Document Center of the U. S. Army has files on 600,000 men. 8,000 of them worked at Auschwitz, and are all considered as suspects. Johann keeps running into obstacles, however;the police refuse to take action, and the other authorities stall. Seeing no other possibility, Johann has all the German telephone books sent to him in order to find the addresses of the names he has since uncovered.
At least he convinces Fritz Bauer to assign his colleague Otto Haller (Johann von Bülow) to his team. Apart from Haller and the “good soul” of the Prosecutor’s office Erika Schmitt (Hansi Jochmann), he can expect no further help, as Senior Public Prosecutor Friedberg refuses to give him any other support. He considers the case as pointless, since it is impossible to prove that the suspects had the intention of killing. “We all had no choice!” He finds it reprehensible to open up old wounds: “Do you want every young man in this country to wonder whether his father was a murderer?” –this is precisely Johann Radmann’s goal. Johann has fallen hopelessly in love with Marlene Wondrak. However, his private life suffers increasingly under his workload. And while he – much to her dismay – digs ever deeper into the past, she fulfills a dream in the here and now: settingup her own fashion shop as part of the “economic – miracle” euphoria.
Johann comes to the successful opening of her shop, but his mind is elsewhere. Johann’s work takes on a new dimension when he learns from Simon Kirsch that his twin daughters had been examined in Auschwitz by the camp’s doctor Josef Mengele, who carried out unspeakable experiments on the prisoners. From now on, Mengele becomes the main target of Johann’s investigations. Johann is aware that Mengele has been returning to Germanyregularly, and tries to find him in Günzburg at his father’s funeral. Johann also asks the BND for help, but all to no avail; Mengele cannot be seized. Bauer points out to Johann that Mengele has powerful friends in Germany and expressly asks Johann to focus on other cases and leave Mengele to him. At the same time, another suspect manages to flee since Johann’s fixation on Mengele prevented him from submitting the other one’s warrant on time.
Bauer again tries to make it clear to Johann that what’s important is not how many leading NS officials are locked up, but to show which crimes in general were committed by “very normal Germans” during the NS years. Johann’s mother tells him that his father – whom Johann deeply revered and who still has not returned home from detainment as a prisoner of war – was also a member of the NSDAP.
Johann’s world falls apart when he finds confirmation for this statement in the American files. Plagued by nightmares, he drinks too much, quarrels with Marlene and Gnielka as well as Fritz Bauer, and slides further and further into a labyrinth of guilt and lies in his search for the truth. Then he quits his job as a public prosecutor and takes on a lucrative offer from an expanding law practice. Johann had always wanted to fight for the Good; now he no longer knows what the Good is… The outcome of the entire trial is at stake. And yet: what Johann finally brings to light will change Germany forever.