Giulio Ricciarelli’s riveting German-language movie, Labyrinth of Lies, ventures into rough terrain — Germany’s historic reckoning with the Nazi era and the Holocaust.
Opening in Canada on October 9, the movie takes a viewer back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Germans were either trying to suppress or forget Germany’s central role in the Holocaust or attempting to come to terms with it.
A film like this could easily have been didactic or overly dramatic, but happily, it’s neither. Labyrinth of Lies explores the issues at hand with courage, spunk and intelligence.
The chief protagonist is a young and idealistic lawyer, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), whose passion for justice is ignited by a hot tip from Thomas Gnielka (Andre Szymanski), a crusading journalist. Gnielka, having discovered that a member of the Waffen SS is now a public school teacher, passes on the information to Radmann, a Frankfurt-based prosecutor who normally deals with traffic violations.
Much to Radmann’s disappointment, his colleagues are not in the least interested in pursuing old Nazis. So Radmann approaches Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), the local attorney-general. Bauer is based on a real-life figure, a German Jew who went into exile and returned to Germany after the war.
Bauer, at first, is skeptical about Radmann’s zealotry, pointing out that the public sector is full of Germans who faithfully served the Nazi regime. But impressed by his persistence, Bauer appoints him lead investigator in the quest to bring Nazis to trial
Through a friendship with Kirsch (Johannes Kirsch), a Holocaust survivor, Radmann learns bitter truths. After a rock embossed with a black swastika is thrown through Kirsch’s window, Kirsch sadly observes, “The Nazis are everywhere.” More importantly, Radmann learns he won’t be able to prosecute Nazi war criminals unless he can connect them to a specific crime. “This is a labyrinth,” warns Bauer. “Don’t get lost.”
The film is adept at exploring moral quandaries. Fed up with Radmann’s persistence, a senior official in Bauer’s department challenges him, archly wondering how the state can possibly accuse German soldiers of war crimes when they were merely following orders. Along the same lines, the U.S. military attache suggests that Radmann is wasting his time, since the enemy today is communism rather than fascism.
Undeterred by these impediments, Radmann immerses himself in stacks of Nazi files. The research pays off. He uncovers the names of 8,000 SS soldiers who served in Auschwitz. All he needs to do now is to track down former Jewish inmates of Auschwitz who personally witnessed the crimes of these perpetrators. His interviews with the witnesses is gut-wrenching.
As he proceeds with his task, Radmann stumbles into a succession of minefields. One senior official warns him that a “line” must be drawn between past and present. Bureaucrats who might be helpful do not cooperate. Radmann is told that Nazis who fled Germany at war’s end are immune to prosecution. Nonetheless, he tries to find Joseph Mengele, the doctor-cum Angel of Death who performed gruesome medical experiments in Auschwitz and who fled to South America after the war.
Though sightly distracted by an affair with a woman whose father was a Nazi, Radmann is wholeheartedly committed to his mission. Germany’s collective silence on the Nazi epoch should no longer be tolerated, he asserts. And in a particularly angry moment, he describes Germany as “a nation of criminals.”
Amid the news that Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann has been captured by the Mossad and brought back to Israel to face a show trial, Radmann launches an intensive search for low and middle-level Nazis, including the last commandant of Auschwitz, Richard Baer.
Labyrinth of Lies draws a realistic and gripping portrait of a society unwilling to face the full truth about its dalliance with Nazism. Ricciarelli achieves this objective not with a sledgehammer but by means of nuanced scenes which drive home the point.
The weight of the film lies mainly on Fehling’s sturdy shoulders, and he acquits himself excellently. Voss, as Bauer, delivers a stellar performance. The rest of the cast is fine.
Labyrinth of Lies is worthy of acclaim due to its fearlessness in addressing issues that are as relevant today as they were about a half a century ago. After all, the Nazi interregnum continues to cast shadows on contemporary Germany.