Labyrinth of Cliches

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When a review of Labyrinth of Lies (Labyrinth des Schweigens) appeared in Die Zeit, the reviewer asked whether it was possible to imagine a time when Auschwitz wasn’t known to everyone as the embodiment of evil (and German responsibility for that evil). But it is possible to imagine such a vacuum, at least if you live in the Canadian constituency of Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas. In the recent parliamentary elections, the New Democratic candidate Alex Johnstone, a school board trustee with a Master of Social Work degree, was embarrassed when it was revealed that she had made a joke about Auschwitz on Facebook. (She commented on a friend’s page that his photos of the camp’s concrete fence posts looked phallic.) When her Facebook posting was made public, Johnstone claimed that she didn’t know what Auschwitz was.

Perhaps she did know what Auschwitz was, and thought it better to claim ignorance in order to avoid the worse charge of racism. But if we take her at her word, that tells us one of two things: the Canadian education system is woefully inadequate, or people can go through life blissfully ignorant of some of the worst crimes in human history.

In late 1950s Germany, however, there was a third option: willful ignorance. The Wirtschaftswunder was in full swing, and people wanted to look forward, not back.  But one reason Germany didn’t end up sweeping the past under the rug was the tenacity of some prosecutors to pursue murderers from Auschwitz before the statute of limitations made trials impossible. Labyrinth of Lies tells the fictionalized story of one of these prosecutors and how he had to overcome derision and indifference to bring these criminals to trial.

People wanted to look forward, not back.

It’s not surprising that this film is Germany’s submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In the past dozen years, half of the films nominated by Germany have been historical films set in or referring to the Third Reich or the GDR. Some, such as Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, have been attempts to bring history to the screen, whereas others, such as Georg Maas’s Two Lives, create fictional stories to illustrate historical issues. Labyrinth of Lies does both: heavily researched and featuring mostly historical figures, it is nonetheless fictional in that its protagonist, Johann Radmann (played by Alexander Fehling), is a composite character based on a couple of the original Auschwitz investigators. Many in the German film industry might have preferred seeing Sebastian Schipper’s inventive Victoria nominated (read the kultur360 review), but the Oscar rules require foreign language films to have no more than 40% of their dialogue in English (and someone figured out that Victoria is 49% English).

Like so many historical dramas from Germany in recent years, great care is taken with the production design and colour palette to produce a look that strikes one as authentic. Authenticity in historical films is a funny creature; the viewer has certain expectations, and if the filmmaker can meet those expectations, the film will be described as authentic, even if the viewer has no real experience or knowledge of the period or place in question. Little details must be slightly exaggerated to emphasize for the viewer that care has been taken with historical detail, and first-time feature director Giulio Ricciarelli doesn’t disappoint – horn-rimmed glasses and 1950s dresses abound. The film provides numerous shots of post-war Frankfurt architecture, particularly the circular staircases that Radmann ascends or descends with astonishing frequency (no wonder Fehling is able to remain so thin). But this is the 1950s, so damage from the war must be seen as well. A nice confluence of the 1950s as a decade of optimism is channeled most forcefully through Radmann’s dress-designing girlfriend Marlene Wondrak (played by Friederike Becht). The location of her shop – a decaying basement suite in an apartment building courtyard – reminds us that this optimism is built on the ruins of the Second World War.

The tension between optimism for the future and pessimism about the past is at the heart of this film. The people around Radmann can’t understand his willingness to remind everyone about Nazi crimes; people are either in denial or simply don’t want to be bothered by it. But Radmann himself is simply not the optimistic type. A new prosecutor, he’s dissatisfied with prosecuting traffic offenses; he wants more interesting cases. He dislikes his mother who has moved on after the disappearance of his staunch anti-Nazi father on the eastern front. As he sinks into the labyrinth of information, misinformation, and governmental obstruction that protects the Auschwitz murderers, Radmann’s obsession drives him to the point of despair. He pushes away those closest to him: his girlfriend who can’t stand being around him anymore, and even the journalist Gnielka (played by André Szymanski) who tipped him off in the first place and has become his close friend and collaborator.

Radmann discovers, to his great disappointment, that everyone is implicated in either the Nazis’ crimes or the repression of them: the Attorney General, whose anti-Nazi bona fides are beyond reproach, won’t go after Mengele, preferring to prosecute smaller but obtainable fish; even the self-righteous Gnielka, who reveals that he was forced to work at Auschwitz as a 17-year-old; his revered father, discovered by Radmann to have joined the Nazi party. He’s even angry at himself for not having recognized the deception and lies in the first place. Unable to deal with the guilt, he leaves the prosecutor’s office for private practice.  But there he notices a distinct lack of interest in justice, so he leaves that job as well.

Had this been an American film, the fictional Radmann could have been played by Ben Affleck.

In the throes of this existential crisis, Radmann visits the ailing Simon Kirsch, an Auschwitz survivor, and promises to go with Gnielka to the camp to say kaddish for Kirsch’s two children whom Josef Mengele had selected for his special ward. Afterwards he returns to work at the prosecutor’s office. The Attorney General asks him why, and he says something to the effect that we can’t change Auschwitz, so we had better live good lives. More ex-Nazis are rounded up, and even though Mengele escapes the long of the arm of the law, the film ends on a positive note as the trial is about to begin. Even the relationship with Marlene seems to be on the mend. All is well in Germany.

But not all is well in this viewer’s mind. The film’s symbolic gestures are often heavy-handed. Arresting the former Auschwitz guard turned school teacher as he is separating the schoolchildren into two groups seems a bit obvious. The harmony among the Jewish survivor, the remorseful guard, and the angry member of the second generation? Sure, that’s nice to see, but it is also self-congratulatory, and suggests premature reconciliation and closure, rather than Germany’s ongoing efforts to confront its past.

Had this been an American film, the fictional Radmann could have been played by Ben Affleck, the master of portraying the earnest yet self-deprecating (and sometimes self-harming) hero. The film would work well as an Affleck vehicle: there is no ambiguity about how to understand or deal with the legacy of Auschwitz, or the events that led to the Auschwitz trials of the 1960s. Fehling plays this role well, but in a much more complex film about Auschwitz, Robert Thalheim’s 2007 Am Ende kommen Touristen (And along Come Tourists), Fehling was able to play a more nuanced observer of Auschwitz and its role in German memory politics. Set in the present, Thalheim’s film considers how each generation—and by extension the viewer—must confront the atrocities of the past and establish the significance of this past for the present. In stark contrast, Labyrinth of Lies—with its emphasis on atmospheric authenticity and on giving audiences a chance to feel good about being on the right side of history—diminishes the ability of historical film to teach us real lessons.

About the Author

James Skidmore, co-editor of kultur360, teaches German Studies at the University of Waterloo.

One Comment

  1. Sean Prpick / December 4, 2015 at 09:58 /Reply

    James, I enjoyed your review of “Labyrinth of Lies” very much. I, too, reviewed the film several weeks ago (on Facebook) and after reading your review it’s clear we’re to being on the same wavelength on this movie.

    And, yes, while the film is a bit lugubrious, overly earnest and cliche-ridden, its heart is certainly in the right place. It’s testament to the strides modern Germany has made in coming to grips with the Holocaust. It also makes for an entertaining and challenging night out at the movies (although it helps if you’ve had a lifelong interest in modern German history).

    All that being said, I have a few historical nits of my own to pick with “Labyrinth,” namely:

    – the rather startling claim in the film that the Israelis were sub-contracted by the Germans in the early 1960s to simultaneously pick up beer drinking buddies Adolph Eichmann and Josef Mengele from their respective Buenos Aires hideouts. Then the Mossad was supposed to deliver them back to West Germany for prosecution. But according to this movie’s account, the Israelis double-crossed the Germans by keeping Eichmann for themselves, while letting Mengele get away. Why? An Israeli spy tells the young prosecutor that as a “mere” death camp doctor, Mengele seemed like a small fish to them. All the Israelis really wanted was to use the information they got from West German intelligence to get the true architect of the Holocaust, Eichmann, and for themselves only, too. While this is plausible and interesting story, I’m not sure it’s an historically proven one, at least not yet.

    – less plausible is that the 30-something prosecutor/hero is shocked — shocked! — there are still so many war criminals wandering around free. And that so many of his ordinary fellow citizens have a convenient form of amnesia about the war and the Nazis. He attests he personally knew nothing about all this stuff until he started to read the wartime records and taking testimony from the victims. How could the older generation be so horrible? But, hold on a minute! The prosecutor talks about two-thirds through the film about being born in 1930. This means that in the real world, since the Hitler regime came to power in 1933, he would have been indoctrinated from his pre-school years into Nazi ideology. And he would have been part of various compulsory Nazi youth groups, culminating in membership in the Hitler Youth starting at about age 12. And if this character was 15 the last year of the war, he likely would have been drafted into the German armed forces, as many kids were then. Someone his age would have known a lot by the end of the war about Nazi crimes. It may have been hard to avoid committing some himself. As a result, his pose of total ignorance and innocence is a bit hard to swallow.

    – and lastly … less of an historical nit than an aesthetic one … the part of a sympathetic American army officer, who helps the hero find crucial wartime Nazi records, is played by a famous person — perhaps too famous. He’s German-American actor Tim Williams … better known as the Trivago Guy. This transplanted Texan was recruited by the German-based Trivago several years ago to do TV commercials in the Fatherland. He speaks excellent, American-accented German and was such a hit there he was hired to start doing the commercials in his native tongue here. And now he’s pretty hard to avoid on our airwaves. So, in this movie, while he is very good at empathizing with the hero and driving the plot forward, it’s hard not to keep saying to yourself, “Geez, that’s the Trivago guy!” A distraction, I’d say.

    But … one must take a deep breath and say, “It’s a feature film, not a documentary,” and enjoy it on the basis alone.

    And I enjoyed it.

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