Perspective is powerful.
Every educated kid in much of the Western world today knows of Auschwitz as a flagship Nazi-run concentration camp during the Holocaust. But in Labyrinth of Lies, those questioned in 1950’s Frankfurt, Germany have never heard of Auschwitz. Either that or they refuse to acknowledge its existence. For me, that was a striking introduction to an already familiar topic.
Screenwriters Elisabeth Bartel and Giulio Ricciarelli (Rossini) know how to take advantage of what their modern audience knows, and what the film’s characters, set in 1950’s Germany, do not know.
The movie begins in 1958 and follows the (fictional) public prosecutor Joseph Radmann, played by Alexander Fehling (Inglourious Basterds, Homeland) through the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the 1960’s. Too young to have fought in World War II, he is a painfully by-the-book idealist who chances upon the unspoken and, among his generation, unknown horrors of Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
As Radmann builds his case against the Nazis, his moral high ground is threatened not only by the massive amount of people involved, but the ease with which former Nazi party members have been able to adopt normal, sometimes privileged lives, without facing any consequences for their wartime actions.
I’m not German, despite the roots of my surname or that week I spent in Mainz as a teenager. I have no insight into German culture. Watching this film made me feel acutely aware of cultural references that probably didn’t resonate with me the way they would with a German audience, but I couldn’t put my finger on what those were, exactly.
Because of that, it’s only personal when I say that while Labyrinth of Lies tonally and thematically conjures great recent German films The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher), Downfall (Der Untergang) and The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), it unfortunately never reaches the high bar they set.
A major point of weakness is the inclusion of a love story between Radmann and the daughter of an alcoholic ex-soldier, played by Friederike Becht (The Reader, Hannah Arendt). While the blossoming romance at times highlights the complex relationships between the war- and post-war generations, it never sits naturally within the main story arch of the trial. It’s an example of what keeps the movie from greatness: its moments of poignancy too often feel forced or obvious.
The movie does, however, have some memorable moments, especially a haunting and beautiful montage of camp survivors recounting their stories to Radmann. There is no dialogue, and each figure is framed in a disquieting close-up, exposing that these were real people and real stories behind the actors. This is juxtaposed in a later scene with a visually matching montage of ex-SS guards being read their crimes.
This leads into the great realization and cornerstone of the film. While visiting Auschwitz, seeing it first-hand, Radmann admits that even he can’t be sure how he would have acted, had he been old enough to fight during the war. How do we hold soldiers accountable for heinous actions, the film prods us to consider, if they were just following orders?