Giulio Ricciarelli’s Labyrinth of Lies begins on a brief note of pointed irony even before this German movie’s credits have ended. In a scene of children playing in a sunlit schoolyard, some of them sing a song of national allegiance. It’s 1958 in West Germany, and the implied comment will soon become obvious.
Labyrinth is about national and individual German guilt in the aftermath of the Holocaust. It’s based on a pivotal criminal prosecution in the 1960s against German war criminals. The movie takes a very accessible approach to this weighty subject matter, using a semi-fictionalized story. Its protagonist is Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) (a composite of three actual people), a very junior lawyer in the Frankfort public prosecutor’s office assigned to misdemeanors and traffic violations. The young, bored prosector’s life changes when he listens to a crusading journalist (André Szymanski) bring a complaint to the office about a former Nazi working illegally at that elementary school. The chief prosecutor and Radmann’s colleague dismiss the matter, but he pursues it, to disappointingly little effect.
But his acquaintance with the journalist, and a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, inspires his outrage and a commitment to find and prosecute Germans responsibility for the genocide perpetrated at Auschwitz. He overcomes the resentful objections of his superiors by gaining the approval of Fritz Bauer (finely played with quiet authority by the late Gert Voss), the regional attorney general, and a Jew himself.
Radmann’s investigations are undertaken in a social environment of indifference and hostility. The chief prosecutor regards this work as an attack on Germany’s honor and its path to post-war recovery. One of the movie’s more incisive devices is to make Radmann initially genuinely ignorant of Auschwitz’s horrible existence, an incognizance supposedly shared by his fellow citizens. (Labyrinth strongly implies that German unawareness of the Holocaust wasn’t as extensive as often claimed.) Radmann inevitably learns that the German government’s unofficial policy is to avoid confronting or drawing attention to genocidal crimes of the recent past. It has no interest in bringing those responsible to justice. Radmann’s efforts don’t receive any cooperation, except from Bauer and a secret government informer.
Knowledge of and interest in the Holocaust, officially and more generally in Europe and America, declined sharply after the 1946 Nuremberg trials of the Third Reich’s leaders. The Israelis’ capture of SS official Adolf Eichman, and Stanley Kramer’s big earnest 1961 film, Judgment at Nuremberg, which included grim footage of the Nazi concentration camps as the Allied armies found them, were at the beginning of a slow, long-delayed corrective period of examination. One of Labyrinth’s merits is its convincing depiction of Radmann’s dismaying discovery of the extent of Germans’ complicity. In the 1980s and 90s, a new generation of Germans began to ask about the active and tacit guilt of their elders. Their ranks provided the most enthusiastic readers of Harvard Scholar Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a 1996 book that charged Germans with singular anti-Semitism and support for the Third Reich’s mass atrocities. Most historians consider Goldhagen’s account to be exaggerated, but Ricciarelli—who co-wrote the film—makes a case for a social fabric of interwoven guilt and willed ignorance. He does this without making his characters into stiffly symbolic mouthpieces. Accounting from some intermittent melodramatic excess, Radmann’s plight, and his eventual encounter with some personally devastating secrets, are, for the most part, kept dramatically valid and involving. It’s not easy to bring off this kind of project.
Its relevance has very recently been underlined by presidential candidate Ben Carson’s unconscionably offensive and self-justifying comparisons of America with Hitler’s Germany. It’s all too sadly clear that a movie like this one is not belaboring what’s already been learned.
Now playing at the Eastern Hills Cinema.