Labyrinth of Lies
by Liana Vardi
Labyrinth of Lies, now playing at Flix Superplex, has much to recommend it. The movie is based on real events (in this instance without need of quotation marks): the first German war crimes trial in 1963-5 of SS who worked at Auschwitz. Unlike the famous Nuremberg trials of 1945-9 or that of Adolf Eichmann in 1962, this event has not entered collective memory. At the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, director Giulio Ricciarelli explained that, even in Germany, few people know about it. This is somewhat surprising given that its purpose was to give Germans a wake-up call about the horrors they prefered to forget and about the perpetrators still in their midst.
The year is 1958. Johann Radman, a composite character based on three actual lawyers, has just started working at the Frankfurt Prosecutor’s office. He is earnest, with a deep respect for the law, and totally uncool. Alexander Fehling (Carrie Mathison’s boyfriend on this season’s Homeland) only smiles once in the entire film, impressing on us that we are dealing with serious stuff. He stumbles accidentally on the case of a schoolteacher who had been commander at Auschwitz, and is encouraged to pursue his investigations of SS perpetrators by the Prosecutor General Fritz Bauer, himself a Jew who fled Germany after 1933 (played with finesse by the late Gert Voss).
Radman is mocked as the “Sheriff” by fellow lawyers, when he does not get thinly veiled threats. But he doggedly pursues information about former SS who now live and work untrammelled, protected by the authorities. He knows nothing about Auschwitz and the film follows his education, as he searches for evidence, names, files, phone numbers, and listens to the heart-breaking testimonies of survivors, including one of his friends. He is driven to despair, feeling the entire German nation is part of a cover-up, and becomes obsessed with bringing Dr. Mengele to justice. Radman, with his absolute vision of justice, his naiveté about the realities of post-war Germany, functions as a cypher for revelations with which we are by now familiar. Despite the bit of romance and soirées with friends that put him in touch with the new Germany, he is reduced to truth-seeker, acting in a vacuum, who single-handedly compels the Germans to face their past. While Fehling does as good a job as he can, presenting the trial as one man’s crusade and one man’s emotional journey ends up undermining the film’s good intentions. Surely, we think, there was more to it than that, even if some baddies ended up behind bars.
Watch the trailer for Labyrinth of Lies
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