Monday, October 5, 2015
Labyrinth of Lies (***1/2)
Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli
You could spend a lifetime watching films dealing with World War II, the Holocaust and the ripple effects it has had on Europe, America and nearly all advanced nations in the world. You could spend a lifetime watching these films and still not see them all. The war is so readily perfect for films because the lines of good and evil are drawn very specifically - by all accounts, it's perceived as a war in which the good guys won. Despite the amount of films, there's very few that show nuance, that are willing to blur our memories of the heroic allies versus the depraved Nazis. Labyrinth of Lies takes place in the 1960's Frankfurt, decades after the worst was over. Germany is still struggling to regain its place in the world, and the last thing any of the old guard wants is someone to bring up the fact that there is indeed more for them to pay for. That a German film is being made about German comeuppance during the war is astonishing in its own right, but Labyrinth of Lies' cool detachment, its declarative feelings about post-war Germany are its most powerful asset. Directed by Italian filmmaker Giulio Ricciarelli - his feature debut - this film's strong presence makes it one of the fresher films to deal with this subject matter. Lies documents a nation in turmoil, a mass of people trying so hard to convince themselves that everything is fine that they can't see the insidious nature of what's in front of them.
Lies funnels its story through the fictional creation Johann Radmann (played with a stoic versatility by Alexander Fehling), a young public prosecutor eager to serve justice. When rabble-rousing journalist Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski) storms into the court demanding one of the attorneys look into the case of Charles Schulz, a former SS officer who worked in Auschwitz who now teaches children, Johann is the only one naive enough to look into it. Radmann discovers that Schulz was indeed an Auschwitz officer and should not be allowed to be teaching. He passes the information to his boss, who transports it to the Ministry of Education, who assures that a suspension is in order. Radmann doesn't have to do much research to discover that Schulz was, in fact, not punished at all. Always suspicious that his mother country was living in a state of denial about their involvement in the Holocaust (the end of the Nuremburg Trials was considered the end of the issue), Radmann is shocked to learn the amount of cover-ups and levels of dishonesty that has plagued the German nation in an attempt to keep war criminals from prosecution. When Gnielka introduces Radmann to his friend, and Auschwitz survivor, Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), Radmann uncovers a list of fifteen SS officers who worked at the notorious concentration camp. Radmann brings the list to the Attorney General Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), who then puts Radmann in charge of an investigation into those responsible for the deaths at the camp.
Radmann is warned by Bauer of the danger of this investigation. Not only will he be met by hostility from those unwilling to further expose Germany's atrocities, but his work could uncover truths even he is not prepared for. As Radmann begins interviewing those Jews imprisoned at Auschwitz, he begins hearing the shocking details of the violence and brutality committed. When Simon describes the fate of his young twin daughters at the hands of the sadistic Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele, Radmann makes the twisted Nazi doctor his prime target. Famed for disfiguring procedures, Mengele has fled to South America, protected by high-ranking German officials keen on keeping him out of sight. As the investigations proceed, arrests are made, but Radmann's hit list becomes longer and longer. Soon, he is after any officer who worked at Auschwitz, all 8,000 of them. As more lies are uncovered, more horror stories told, the eyes on Radmann and his investigation become hotter. It's one thing for American forces to charge German officers with war crimes, but to be persecuted by their very own? After so many years have gone by? It's no surprise that the case overwhelms Radmann, the truth becoming harder to take as the enemy he searches for comes closer and closer to home; but as he continues to push forward, the buried stories of those lives destroyed by the Holocaust come closer to the foreground, and Germany is met face-to-face with their troubling history.
Labyrinth of Lies has a charming subplot in which Radmann meets and falls in love with a beautiful, feisty fashion designer named Marlene (played by Friederike Becht), but the film is at its best when it focuses on its tale of obsession. The film is similar to David Fincher's Zodiac in this way, with a protagonist who's become so sucked in by the end game that he doesn't see the small victories in front of him, nor does he see his life falling apart around him. Perhaps the historical context within Lies gives its story a bit more gravitas, but Zodiac is a good example of how a film can really succeed if it commits to the eccentricity of its main character. Of course, Labyrinth of Lies is built with a responsibility toward history, and Fehling is not yet the kind of virtuoso performer that Jake Gyllenhaal is. That Radmann is actually a fictional creation from the screenplay (by Ricciarelli and Elisabeth Bartel) doesn't effect the film because the movie does allow him to have moments where he must face the truth that he himself has uncovered. Lies is attempting to do what 12 Years a Slave did in America in 2013: discarding nationalistic loyalty in the search of moral purity. Germany is a lot closer to accepting their place in post-war history than America is in accepting their implicit roles in slavery, but both films are strong reminders that empowering silence and believing that you can escape the past only further ferments injustice.