It’s hard to believe today, when the Holocaust is invoked at almost every injustice and the Auschwitz “brand” is as familiar as Coca-Cola, that twenty years after World War II ended, little was widely known about the Nazis’ plan to exterminate European Jewry. In the U.S., in Israel, and in Germany, the general public and their governments had scant interest in confronting what had happened during the recent war. One of the great European civilizations had carefully and deliberately designed and implemented a system of mass murder? Impossible. The majority of its law-abiding and respectable citizens either participated or agreed to turn away in silence? Inconceivable.
The engaging new German film “Labyrinth of Lies” opens in the late 1950s, when Germany was focused on rebuilding its economy, with the enthusiastic support of the United States. Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) has recently been appointed public prosecutor in Frankfurt; like all beginners, he has to content himself with boring minor offenses such as traffic tickets. When the journalist Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski) identifies a teacher in a local school as a former Auschwitz guard, a violation of the law, Radmann begins to examine the case over the resistance of his colleagues and superiors. He barely recognizes the word “Auschwitz, ” but he’s curious.
“Labyrinth of Lies” proceeds in a classic legal mystery style, building suspense with each document Radmann discovers and each bureaucratic obstacle he encounters. A sympathetic U.S. army officer explains that the Americans are more concerned with building Germany up as an ally to counter the Russians than in uncovering all the Nazis currently working in the government. The Israelis show up as well, undermining Radmann’s investigation when it interferes with their capture of Adolf Eichmann. But with the support of prosecutor general Fritz Bauer, Radmann continues to uncover evidence of the widespread involvement of German civilians. A breakthrough comes when he tracks down several survivors of Auschwitz, who can identify the guards who worked there.
Although fictionalized, the movie is based on actual events and incorporates historical characters, including Bauer, who is revealed to be a Jew late in the film and is played with great dignity by Gert Voss. Radmann’s character is a composite of several young prosecutors who worked the case. The handsome Fehling (soon to appear in this season’s “Homeland”) makes an appealing hero, and there is a love interest as well in Marlene Wondrak (Friederike Becht), a young fashion designer.
Written and directed by Giulio Ricciarelli, “Labyrinth of Lies” is a highly accessible historical drama that tells the little-known story of the German Auschwitz trials in the early ‘60s, the proceedings that revealed the widespread participation of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust. These trials had the same impact on the German public that the Eichmann trial had on Israelis — it forced them to look at something they’d turned away from previously. While there are some cheesy bits, the film is absorbing and proves there is no end to the stories to be mined from the Holocaust.
Israel’s Strategic Position
Ron Tira has an interesting analysis of the current situation in the Middle East in the fall issue of “Jewish Review of Books,” a publication I haven’t come across before. In “Israeli Strategy for a New Middle East,” Tira, an officer in the Israeli Air Force, presents Israel as one of the few stable nation states in the region, along with Iran, Egypt, and Turkey. That makes for interesting company. He is not a fan of the American nuclear accord with Iran, but he presents a reasonable view of the circumstances Israel finds itself in now that the accord is a reality.
“Transparent,” the Most Jewish Show on TV
I’m tickled that Amazon’s “Transparent” won an Emmy for best comedy series, and can’t wait for the second season to start in December. It was worth springing for Amazon Prime to watch this funny and touching series about an older man (the brilliant Jeffrey Tambor) who decides to come out as a transgender woman. In addition to creating a deeply affecting portrait of a man struggling to maintain some balance between his own psychological needs and his relationships with his children, creator Jill Soloway has drawn a vibrant picture of a contemporary Jewish family. In many ways, “Transparent” is the most Jewish show on TV, presenting American Jewish life in all its confounding complexity. Check it out.