It seems almost impossible for a generation that grew up on Holocaust literature and films to realize that at one time, the entire world had no idea what the Nazis secretly did to millions of Jews and other groups deemed unworthy. Germany’s Foreign language Academy Award submission, the legal drama “Labyrinth of Lies,” seeks to explore the silence around the genocide, and tell the remarkable true story about the German prosecutors who pursued justice for the crimes committed at Auschwitz nearly 20 years later.
Alexander Fehling stars as Johan Radmann, an idealistic and dogged young prosecutor in Frankfurt who follows a tip about a schoolteacher being a former SS guard, which leads him down a rabbit hole to discovering the truth about Auschwitz. The late-50s Germany that Johan inhabits is beautiful and tranquil. The film has gorgeous lines, sumptuous midcentury architecture, soothing green and blue walls off-setting classic suits. Beatniks and babes boogie to jazz _ this is an idyllic, quaint post-war Germany. But it’s all a construction, a charming, placid facade covering up the violence and hatred of decades before.
As a man of the law, Johan is all efficiency and rules, without an ounce of guile or irony, straight as an arrow. He follows the law faithfully, but is ruled equally by compassion. He is brash, unrestrained, and garners the nickname “Cowboy,” for his shoot first, ask questions later approach to tracking down the guilty parties.
In his quest, he is both dedicated and naive. When a witness tells him that “hundreds of thousands” died in Auschwitz, he picks up a pen and says he’ll need the names of the victims. He doesn’t quite comprehend what he’s hearing. “Don’t you realize?” the witness representative says. “It was a factory.” His dawning realization and horror is what motivates his tireless efforts to enact some measure of justice, though he finds that deep in the heart of Germany, there are more individuals — people that Johan is close to — connected to these war crimes than he is comfortable with.
“Labyrinth of Lies” is concerned with both the banality of evil and the pervasiveness of corrupt systems that penetrate seemingly civilized societies. This comes to bear in a spine-tingling sequence that pays homage to Costa Gravas’ political thriller “Z,” when Johan reads the horrifying, detailed charges to the grayed, aging former SS guards who have been arrested. They don’t look like killers, and that makes it all the more difficult to understand. Can there be justice for a nation in which nearly anyone can be guilty?
This is the question that plagues Johan, as he realizes that it’s not as black and white as he thought it was. But he believes in justice, and comes to believe deeply in the notion of testimony. Bearing witness to these events is at the heart of so much media and art about the Holocaust, and “Labyrinth of Lies” is no different. Telling the stories can commence the catharsis and healing process, not only for the victims but for Germany. “Labyrinth of Lies” is clearly part of that healing, by celebrating and enshrining this brave true story, and the resulting film is an emotionally affecting and illuminating piece that is beautiful as well as edifying.
Labyrinth of Lies
Rated: R for a scene of sexuality. Starring: Alexander Fehling, Andre Szymanski, Friederike Becht. Director: Giulio Ricciarelli. Running time: 124 minutes. Theater: Flicks. In German with English subtitles.