Labyrinth Of Lies (Im Labyrinth des Schweigens)

Germany (2014) Dir. Giulio Ricciarelli

“Man is not born to be a hero. Right?”

The above line from this film is spoken by a lawyer. Quelle surprise, I suppose you might say. But whilst designed as a “wink wink” reference to underline the perceived venality of the legal system, there is a greater potency within the context of this dramatisation of shockingly true events.

Germany 1958 and the country has moved on from the World War II, yet the horrors of the past are reawakened for Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch) when he discovers former Auschwitz commander Charles Schulz (Hartmut Volle) is a junior school teacher. Simon and journalist friend Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski) take the case to the public prosecutors but no-one wants to touch it.

However, idealistic young prosecutor Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) is curious about this and decides to investigate the claim against Schulz, discovering his records for the war years have vanished. After Thomas prints a news story about it, Radmann learns that the events of Auschwitz have been wiped from history and every culpable Nazi has got away scot free, spurring him on to ensure they are all brought to justice.

It is hard to decide what the most shocking thing about this story is – the fact the whole existence of Auschwitz was effectively wiped from the German history books, how those involved were able to carry on with their lives as normal after the war ended or that these horrific incidents actually happened in the first place.

All three are sickening in their own way but the first is likely to be the most surprising to many of us. Italian-German actor and director Giulio Ricciarelli should be applauded for sharing this shameful and sobering story with us and for addressing it on a global scale with a sincere sense of contrition, something those guilty of their sins reportedly failed to show during the now infamous Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials.

The 20-month trials began in 1963 after five years of endless, pugnacious investigation by the prosecutors of whom Radmann is a composite, under the aegis of Prosecutor-General Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss). According to the notes at the end of the film, 211 survivors testified against 19 SS soldiers, 17 of whom were found guilty with the worst offender Dr. Josef Mengele avoiding trial completely after being allowed to live with impunity in South America.

Because of the depth of the cover up and with many ex-Nazis holding senior positions within the system, obstacles were rife at every stage but Bauer and Radmann refused to be defeated. Much of this was older people not wanting the past dug up, claiming it would upset the mood of the country in its post-war prosperity, a clear indication they knew where the metaphoric (and literal) bodies were buried, or knew someone who did.

Yet with this war crimes stricken from the record, the lack of proof meant any case would be futile with no-one realistically being prosecuted. Since many of us are watching this with knowing the fact are a matter of public record, it is surreal to watch Thomas asks people under 30 if they have heard of Auschwitz all replying “no”.

Radmann is among them but soon changes his tune but getting everyone else to listen is an arduous task on its own. Gradually the walls of obstruction come down with Radmann gaining access to the official war records but with the sheer volume of files on Auschwitz  running into the thousands, it is silently hoped he would give up. Instead, others admire his tenacity and soon he has dedicated helpers by his side.  

The cover-up of Auschwitz is an incendiary plot thread that burns incessantly throughout the film. Whenever a suspect is arrested, their lawyer will shrug and say their client was simply obeying orders or be killed themselves, and that everyone in the party was a Nazi. Galvanising words for Radmann and for the audience too, especially when records reveal that many of the atrocities committed were of the culprit’s own invention.

As this is a dramatisation, Ricciarelli and co-writer Elisabeth Bartel are forced to widen the entertainment remit to offset the grimness of the investigation, achieved through Radmann’s obligatory love interest, aspiring dress maker Marlene (Friederike Becht). At first a predictable contrivance, Marlene becomes a victim of Radmann’s obsession of the Nazis and the realisation that the “everyone was a Nazi” sophistry is actually true.

Plenty of dramatic capital is gained from the Mengele subplot. Remaining untouchable due to immunity from living abroad and the whitewashing of his crimes meaning back home his name and influence still carries weight. A distinct young vs. old dichotomy is established, with the old guard putting up fences to keep the status quo which the young are trying break down, seniority sadly triumphing over morality.

With this being about the aftermath of Auschwitz, Ricciarelli doesn’t go the obvious route of flashbacks to highlight the unspeakable evil of the SS; he doesn’t need to. The simple sight of an ashen faced Radmann and his secretary Schmittchen (Hansi Jochmann) leaving the interview room and bursting into tears is sufficient. The nightmares Radmann has about them however are swift, disturbing enough substitution.

For the cast, this must have been a hard film to make knowing what they do now about this situation which assuredly knocked their national pride a bit, especially the older actors born around this period. In his final role, Kurt Voss appears like a man carrying a huge burden on his aged shoulders as Bauer, leaving Alexander Fehling to bring the youthful energy and intensity as the tenacious Radmann.

Labyrinth Of Lies is a revelation of a film on a number of levels, largely from sharing this pernicious true story as a belated admission of guilt. In no way sugar coated as you might expect this visually stunning outing is an evocative and powerful expose into a chapter of Germany history that needs to be known to all.

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