MOVIE REVIEW: LABYRINTH OF LIES
October 8, 2015
Now in the heart of “awards season”, as the cinematic cream starts to rise to the top and the wheat separates from the chaff, the annual definition of “best” becomes clearer and the race for Oscar begins. But one category of film always seems to stand alone out of the fray and limelight and is quite often overlooked by not only distributors and theatre owners, but moviegoers - foreign language films. Each year, countries from around the globe chose one film from their country to submit for Oscar consideration. The Best Foreign Language Film is a multi-step process with long lists narrowing to short lists and even shorter ones until the final names we hear read on Oscar nominations morning. As I work my way through screening these foreign language films for 2015, I can tell you already that this year’s submissions excel on so many levels. In truth, this is one of the richest foreign language film crops to come around in many a day. And already there is one film that stands out above all others; Germany’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film, LABYRINTH OF LIES. A compelling and riveting piece of filmmaking, the intelligence with which this little known factual chapter of history - and German history - is brought to life, indelibly sears the conscience and the heart.
Written and directed by Giulio Ricciarelli and co-written by Elisabeth Bartel, LABYRINTH OF LIES is the narrative telling of the “Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials”. As history tells us, starting with investigations in 1958 under State Attorney General Fritz Bauer, this marked the first time that crimes against humanity were not only recognized under international law (as was done in the first war crimes trials held in Poland 20 years earlier), but according to the laws of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Germans were going after themselves. Ultimately 22 individuals were charged under German criminal law for their roles in the Holocaust at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex, with trials running from December 1963 to August 1965. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. To this day, former Nazi war criminals are still being charged for their crimes committed during WWII. Statistics show that all told, out of 6,500 surviving SS personnel who served as Auschwitz, 789 were tried and 750 sentenced.
Johann Radmann is a go-getting young prosecutor in 1958 Frankfurt, Germany. Like many young attorneys, he wants to make a name for himself and do it quickly. He also thinks that he can take on the world with just a law degree and no experience. Discontent with the “menial” cases he is assigned to handle, it is through happenstance that he stumbles onto truths about some local residents in the town when Auschwitz survivor now artist Simon Kirsch sees a teacher on the school playground whom he recognizes as one of his Nazi tormentors at Auschwitz. Briefly meeting with journalist Thomas Gneilka, a friend of Kirsch’s, Radmann’s flame is lit.
As Radmann seeks to have a police report filed, arrest warrant issued and charges filed by the prosecutor’s office, his pleas fall on deaf ears. He doesn’t understand this. Digging deeper, Radmann discovers the depth of the man’s crimes. He was a member of the Waffen SS at Auschwitz. The man committed war crimes and now he is teaching children? Something is wrong with this picture. Like a rabid dog, Radmann continues to dig only to discover that the public sector is replete with former Nazis, all being “protected” by the German citizens and government. Turning to the U.S. Army Document Center for help, Radmann starts to plow through mountains of documents all of which tell him one thing - war criminals are roaming the streets with no repercussions because of a desire for the people to return to pre-war normalcy. Everyone has got their head stuck in the sand; everyone but for Radmann and Fritz Bauer.
Prosecutor General Fritz Bauer is not only impressed by Radmann’s initiative and thinking, but has a deeper desire for justice. He himself was a death camp prisoner, something Radmann (and the audience) is privy to learn very late in the game. Bauer puts his full weight behind Radmann’s investigations but there’s a caveat; as the statute of limitations has expired for many lesser crimes which could have been charged, Radmann can only prosecute those who can be charged with murder.
As Radmann, Alexander Fehling dazzles with self-righteous idealism and naivete. The dashing blonde blue-eyed Fehling is the embodiment of the idealized German youth but he steps beyond the Hitler Youth movement into a new era, one where some seek justice and seek the truth. Fehling walks a delicate line of ambiguity that sparks interest and questioning of one's own self. With Radmann a composite of the three prosecutors who actually handled the investigations and trials, he had at his disposal the experience and wisdom of Gerhard Wiese who served as a consultant on the film and guide for Radmann. Wiese was in reality the third prosecutor in the trial chain in Frankfurt.
Gert Voss, in his final screen appearance before his recent passing, makes the heart stop with the authenticity and human resonance he brings to Fritz Bauer. The real Bauer was a formidable force as Prosecutor General, but it was the humanity within his conviction that drove Bauer to take the legal tactics towards those running the camps which set these trials apart from others. You see the life lived by former concentration camp inmate Bauer all over Voss' deeply lined face and pain-filled eyes. Voss' performance melds the pain of the tortured and dead with the hope for justice. Stunning, stunning work.
Thomas Gneilka, a real life journalist whose contribution to the real life investigation, is a vital part of the story, serving as the catalyst for Fehling’s Radmann. Andre Szymanski brings an energy and passion to Gneilka that is infectious, making it easy to belief while an idealistic Radmann could be swept into history. Szymanski is the embodiment of an investigative reporter and journalist of the day, while embracing a cultural freedom similar to the US "beatniks" of the 50's that Germany seemed to miss out on due to post-war recovery. Johannes Krisch just tears your heart out with Simon Kirsch’s pain, making Kirsch the very definition of a tortured artist. The pain and horror that Krisch brings to the character is beyond palpable. It's these type of characters and performances that put faces to the history books and allows the audience a glimpse into a world many have only heard about.
Significant are the performances of nameless victims, many of whom come together through a visceral montage as they recount their own death camp atrocities suffered to the prosecutors. The montage is riveting thanks to the crisp and well-paced editing of Andrea Mertens. Key is that Ricciarelli never exploits the real life pain of survivors and we audibly hear nothing of the horror and tortures inflicted - only see pain stricken faces set to an elegiac score - and none more telling than the subtle nuance on the shocked and even shamed face of Radmann’s secretary after taking testimony. Powerful powerful moments within the film.
The script is so well constructed and the character construct designed to include real life individuals and composites of multiples of others, like the character of Radmann, brings history to life but also hones in on the issues, the facts, the emotions without over-burdening the film or the audience with "too much" or "too many" - something very beneficial for American audiences given the film’s sub-titles. Interesting is the ambiguity that Ricciarelli and co-writer Elisabeth Bartel create with Radmann's obsession on hunting down Mengeles. It adds depth to Radmann but also creates tacit discussion about the obsession that was in actuality Hitler and what he propagandized throughout the country during the war and the unseen blinders placed on the public creating tunnel vision, much as the blinders and tunnel vision in 1958 when Fritz Bauer began the investigations. Is that kind of self-obsession ingrained within one, within a society, and can one step beyond it? The complexity that is built into Radmann philosophically and cinematically entices. And then the exposure to the Bohemian lifestyle and to a strong independent woman setting up her own business. The film departs from the expected idealized "happy housewife" and the long held German familial structures and gives yet another societal ambiguity that is refreshing.
I myself had been aware of the Frankfurt Trials from a very young age thanks to spirited debates between visiting cousins from Germany and my grandparents. Even in 1968 and ‘69 after the trials had concluded, the whole ideology of them was still being argued; some of my own relatives still wanted to keep their blinders on and ignore what had occurred. As my grandfather explained to me even then, one of the most important things about these trials was that this marked the first time that Germans were taking the blinders off of themselves and no one was above the law. The mirror was being held up, the facade removed and everyone had to question themselves and each other. Seeing my own relations deny what had happened, denied the horror of what men inflicted on other men in the name of "their job", made a lasting impression on me. It was as if an amnesiac gas had been spread over the country. The trials were so important to not only Germany, but to the world at large, and yet it still feels that they have been swept under the rug until now with LABYRINTH OF LIES.
From the very Hitchcockian opening in a Frankfurt school yard, cinematography of Martin Langer and Roman Osin is exemplary, fueling not only the emotional beats of the film, but creating metaphoric visuals that stir the subconscious. Notable is that the deeper Radmann digs into his investigation, and the more information that is accumulated with office and his apartment, clutter increases, color becomes more saturated and there is more contrast in the lighting. More life comes to light. Glorious metaphoric design all around by Langer and Osin with director Ricciarelli’s guiding hand. Production designer Manfred Doring steeps us in "old world Frankfurt" with the idyllic Grimm Brothers/Disney fantasy style architecture and cobblestones contrasting with the sickly greens and pale interiors of the City Hall and Radmann's offices.
A history lesson that never feels like a history lesson, the blinders are off. LABYRINTH OF LIES takes you through the maze of morals and conflict and out to the other side with an eyes wide open greater understanding of men and history.
Germany’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2016 Academy Awards, LABYRINTH OF LIES is a “must see” film for the world.
Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli
Written by Giulio Ricciarelli and Elisabeth Bartel
Cast: Alexander Fehling, Gert Voss, Andre Szymanski, Johannes Krisch
“Labyrinth of Lies” makes a point of emphasizing that, unlike the more well-known Nuremberg trials, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials involved Germans prosecuting Germans, to heal wounds and ensure justice despite widespread criticism of such measures. It will be interesting to see how many critics and commentators discern comparisons between Germans who really didn’t want to know the truth about what happened during World War II, and Americans who bristle at the very suggestion that torture recently was a tool of trade by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.