Having grown up with a German father who survived being drafted into the Wehrmacht to fight in World War II, films with German war themes interest me. My father was not shy about sharing his experiences in WWII, from being drafted at age 16 when his family tried to flee to Spain to using his skills in English to assistant U.S. forces entering Berlin (he saw the Americans as liberators and later renounced his German citizenship to become a U.S. citizen). One day I hope to write a book about this (as noted in this article: Bonding with the filmmakers of ‘The Book Thief’ over my father’s German WWII story), but for now, I still believe I have a lot to learn, as I found out while watching Labyrinth of Lies, Germany’s selection for the foreign-language film Oscar.
Set in late 1950s Germany, Labyrinth of Lies focuses on the level of ignorance the German people still had about the concentration camps, more than 10 years after the war. It’s well-known that the death camps, run by the SS, were secret to the public until the Russians and Americans marched into Germany to discover the horrors that lay beyond the barbwire fences. However, I never thought the widespread denial of these camps continued into the late ‘50s. This debut feature by Giulio Ricciarelli, examines the story of an ambitious young prosecutor, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), who wants to convict those who committed atrocities at Auschwitz, from Josef Mengele (a.k.a. “The Angel of Death”) on down to the camp’s guards.
For a debut feature, Labyrinth of Lies is a well-plotted, finely acted, tight movie. Ricciarelli is an actor first with loads of experience in German TV movies. It shows, but he also has a strong eye for theatrical compositions. The movie feels like a big scale “Masterpiece Theater” production. The scenes are compact and always move the drama forward, be it Radmann’s quest to do his daunting task, his love affair with a young seamstress (Friederike Becht) or his friendship with a know-it-all journalist (André Szymanski). But then there is also grandeur to many scenes, from the new, sterile buildings like the U.S. fort holding the overwhelming stacks of records from the concentration camps or the vast green, countryside of Germany.
The film’s title holds a reflective connotation that speaks to our enlightened perspective on this difficult time in the 20th century but also refers to the state of denial of the German people during this era. As Simon (Johannes Krisch), a deeply traumatized Auschwitz survivor hiding a horrifying back story, tells Radmann, “This country wants sugar coating. It doesn’t want truth.” I will not deny that the film feels a bit heavy-handed at times. The attorney general warns Radmann, “Be careful this is a labyrinth. Don’t lose yourself in it.” At a low point, Radmann staggers in the streets at night in a drunken stupor calling everyone he sees Nazis. As he grows more obsessed with his crusade, Radmann suffers nightmares of being one of Mengele’s experiments. But the film tells a stark story in an entertaining way that will keep viewers hooked for its 124-minute running time. Ricciarelli maintains a consistent pace, and doesn’t make Radmann a pure hero. He does pay a price for his obsession in his personal life. The production value for this period piece and the performances also never falter. It’s a kind of historical drama that will draw in more than history buffs, even though it may not necessarily win Germany the Oscar prize.
Labyrinth of Lies runs 124 minutes, is in German with English subtitles and is rated R (for gruesome images, cursing and sex). It opens in our South Florida area exclusively at Tower Theater this Friday, Oct. 30. UPDATE: it is now also playing at O Cinema Miami Beach (visit this link for tickets). It’s playing only at a few other theaters in the U.S. To see if it’s in your city, check this link. Sony Pictures Classics provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. They also provided all images here.