I just got back from the cinema, where I saw the German film LABYRINTH OF LIES. It is a masterfully-constructed story about a young and rule-bound prosecutor in Frankfurt in 1958 who starts picking away at the cultural whitewash concealing the truth of the Nazi “Final Solution.” Somehow it is deeply unsettling and cathartic all at once.
The film opens with a schoolyard at recess time. Three male teachers are wandering around, half supervising and half discussing something innocuous – possibly sports – and one goes over to the fence to offer a man searching for his matchbook a light for his cigarette. As he leans in to light his cigarette, he looks at the face of the teacher holding the lighter. He blanches, drops his art supplies, and flees.
We then turn to a young lawyer in the public prosecutor’s office, who is stuck dealing with traffic violations, but is strict about enforcing the letter of the law rather than making exceptions or dealing in gray areas. When the artist, Kirsch, from the first scene arrives at the prosecutor’s office with apparently a known muckraking journalist, Gnielka, the young lawyer, Radmann, is intrigued. He does research into the teacher, discovers he was indeed an SS guard at Auschwitz, and thus is not permitted to teach. He files his report and thinks he’s done his job. In a conversation with Gnielka, it becomes painfully clear that nobody of Radmann’s generation or younger knows anything about Auschwitz. Most have never heard of it. Thus begins a path of excruciating education for Radmann and the others working with him on a case that keeps expanding to encompass what began with one former SS guard, expands to fifteen former commanders at Auschwitz, and then turns into some eight thousand individuals who were stationed at Auschwitz during WWII.
The struggle that Radmann faces is the realization that there is no community, no family, no place in Germany that he can go where the people are entirely innocent of the atrocities of the Final Solution. If they didn’t actually kill others, they failed to speak up. He becomes bitterly aware of the common excuse of “just following orders,” and grows increasingly consumed by his obsession with catching Dr. Josef Mengele, known to many as the Angel of Death. In one agonizing scene, the artist Kirsch finally breaks down and tells Radmann and Gnielka part of his story, about arriving at Auschwitz and meeting a seemingly gentle doctor in white gloves who admired his young twin daughters. In a few sentences, he describes one of the most infamous and most appalling aspects of all of that period – the medical experiments performed on twins by Mengele and his staff.
Johann Radmann is a fictional composite of the two real prosecutors in the Auschwitz trials that began in Frankfurt in 1963 and lasted nearly two years. They were Joachim Kugler and Georg Friedrich Vogel. Both died within the last ten years. Many of the other characters in the film, such as State Attorney General Fritz Bauer (played by Gert Voss in his final role), were real people.
This is one of those movies that’s not exactly one you “like,” because that implies you enjoyed it. I was completely gripped by it.
Alexander Fehling is a master of the micro-expression as realization of what he is uncovering dawns. He goes from businesslike detachment to looking increasingly exhausted and emotionally frayed. He looks like he’s been losing sleep. There are even a few dream sequences illustrating his growing fixation on Mengele. At one point he tells Gnielka that “Mengele is Auschwitz.” Fehling and the film show the way Holocaust survivor stories get under your skin and consume you. I have spent much of the last ten months listening to survivor interviews in the course of research for a client – it wasn’t brand new information to me the way it is to Radmann, but it’s still so easy to lose yourself in the pain and horror.
I am glad the film has no concentration camp flashback scenes – survivor testimony and the charges leveled at the accused are delivered plainly, forcing you as the audience to look both survivors and perpetrators in the face.
One thing LABYRINTH OF LIES (by the way, it turns out the German title actually translates to LABYRINTH OF SILENCE, which might have been more appropriate, if somewhat less dramatic) does particularly well is the nuanced depiction of what I would describe as survivor guilt. There’s the expected kind, of Kirsch the artist mourning his lost daughters and wondering why he lived when they died. But there’s also the raw guilt of Radmann, the unconscious heir of the father he never knew was a Nazi Party member, coming to realize everyone over a certain age in his country was likely complicit in some way, even if it was just through silence and looking away.
There’s the third guilt, though – the guilt of the journalist Gnielka, who was seventeen when he was drafted into the army and stationed at Auschwitz. His guilt drives him to seek and punish the others who worked at the camps, to make the stories of what really happened there public. He is driven by his own shame at having been a part of it, though he had little choice in the matter, and he tried to pass bread and cigarettes to some of the prisoners when he could.
At one point, he and Radmann go to Auschwitz itself at Kirsch’s request, to say Kaddish for his little girls. Kirsch has been unwell and cannot travel, so the two non-Jews go to Auschwitz with a prayer book and try to say the prayer for his children. Gnielka asks Radmann what he sees. “Auschwitz,” he replies. “No,” Gnielka says. “You see a meadow. A fence, barracks, and a meadow. Auschwitz is the victims and their stories.”
Like most studies of human atrocities committed upon each other, this film adds to the message that memory is what’s most important. Acknowledging what happened and making it part of the public awareness, not covering it up and trying to move on as though it hadn’t happened. In Hebrew, it’s zachor, remembrance.
This film has already been selected and submitted by Germany for consideration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. I hope it makes the nomination shortlist so that more people go see it.