'Labyrinth of Lies' ('Im Labyrinth des Schweigens'): Toronto Review

Labyrinth of Lies Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Labyrinth of Lies Still - H 2014

A smart and well-acted take on a historically significant if little-known story 

German newbie director Giulio Ricciarelli casts Alexander Fehling as a 1950s public prosecutor who wants to sue the 8,000 people that worked at Auschwitz

The Nuremberg trials, held right after WWII ended, are famous, and the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem is known to most, also thanks to Hannah Arendt’s writings on the subject, which gave us the frightening idea of the “the banality of evil.” Arguably just as important were the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which also took place in the early 1960s but which are practically unknown, though that may change after the release of Labyrinth of Lies (Im Labyrinth des Schweigens), which successfully dramatizes the events leading up to the hearings that would finally uncover what really happened in the eponymous concentration camp. Germans themselves, especially, either desperately wanted to forget or were completely unaware of what had happened there a mere 15 years earlier.

Scheduled to open Nov. 6 in Germany, this TIFF world premiere was directed by talented newcomer Giulio Ricciarelli and was picked up in Toronto by Sony Pictures Classics, which also handled The Lives of Others, another accomplished debut feature that dug deep into Germany’s socio-historical psyche.  

Labyrinth of Lies opens with a short but very effective scene in 1958 Frankfurt that initially feels like a throwaway moment. Through an iron-bar fence, a kind schoolteacher offers a light to a passing stranger, Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), who seems to have misplaced his matches. Though both are only minor characters, it perfectly sets up the film’s main theme, as the passerby, a camp survivor, drops all his art supplies when he realizes that the kind educator was one of his guards in Auschwitz. The message is clear: People who were part of the Nazi destruction machine didn’t just disappear in 1945, though most people ignored that ugly notion as they tried to get back to “normal” as quickly as possible after the war.

The film’s (fictitious) protagonist is young Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), an ambitious and morally upright public prosecutor in late-1950s Frankfurt who’s frustrated that as a newbie, he’s stuck dealing with traffic offenses. Even pretty Marlene (Friederike Becht), who claims she can’t pay for her fine, gets no reprieve, though he does manage to start dating her not much later. Radmann’s life changes radically when he takes on the case of Kirsch, or rather that of the man Kirsch recognized, who should not be allowed to teach but who clearly lied when he was interviewed for the job after the war.

From the very start, there’s resistance to Radmann’s actions, even from within the courthouse. Most of his colleagues ridicule him and the senior public prosecutor, Walter Friedberg (Robert Hunger-Buehler), suggests it’s a lost cause because he’ll need hard proof of murder (all other crimes expired under the statute of limitations). However, through a little sleuthing and some creative “borrowing,” Radmann and a journalist friend (Andre Szymanski) manage to present a first shred of concrete evidence that quite a few men were involved in killing. Friedberg finally allows the young man to continue his investigation and try and build a case against as many of the 8,000 people that worked at Auschwitz as possible (22 would finally be found guilty when the trial ended in 1965).

In a strong visual suggestion of how much work and how complex a task that is, Radmann is shown visiting the archives of the U.S. Army Document Center, where the records of 600,000 men are kept in disorganized chaos that reaches as far as the eye can see. To make the task even more difficult, the authorities refuse to give any information on any potential perpetrator, so Radmann’s forced to go through all of Germany’s telephone directories to try and locate the suspects.

Today, Auschwitz has become practically a synonym for "Nazi-era concentration camp," so it’s shocking to discover that, less than a decade and a half after the camp was liberated, well-educated people like Radmann knew absolutely nothing about its history or significance. Ricciarelli, who co-wrote the screenplay with Elisabeth Bartel, smartly exploits the gap that exists between the audience and his protagonist in terms of how much they know about Auschwitz. They set up Radmann as an idealistic youngster who accepted the enormous task ahead simply because he was too naive to realize how big and important his task would become and too stubborn to give up once he’d started, with Fehling playing the combination of drive, ambition and inexperience to perfection. 

After a discouraging initial talk with a camp survivor, in which Radmann’s first, rather innocent question, "How many victims were there?," is answered with a stoic "Thousands," Ricciarelli mutes the dialogue for the following eyewitness accounts, instead simply showing a montage of speaking faces, set to Niki Reiser and Sebastian Pille’s haunting, choir-powered score, and then cutting to a shot of Radmann’s big-hearted, middle-aged secretary (Hansi Jochmann), who leaves the room in shock after what one supposes must be the revelation of grueling inhuman details. Audiences will fill in the rest.

The film makes it very clear that Radmann had little room to maneuver, with authorities and others blocking his attempts left and right. Some wanted to hide their own or their friends’ past, others simply can’t live with the idea that "every young man in this country will be wondering whether their father is a murderer." But in a way, this is exactly what Radmann and Friedberg are looking for, as they want to make it clear to a nation what had really happened in Auschwitz and how this evil was also perpetrated by "regular" Germans, not only a faceless regime that ended in 1945 (Arendt no doubt approved). 

The film deftly explores the story’s complex moral issues from several sides and credibly shows how they start hitting closer and closer to home for the increasingly disturbed Radmann. Generally, the screenplay’s extremely rich, from its throwaway particulars that shed a light on the position of women in post-war Germany to its unexpected flashes of humor, which ensure the film doesn’t collapse under the weight of heavy themes. Less successful are a subplot involving a visit to the death camp itself and the prosecutor’s chase of the elusive Dr. Mengele, which are both too short to make anything but very superficial points yet drag on the proceedings in the film’s closing reels.

Production and costume design and the striking camerawork all suggest Ricciarelli is someone who, in association with his collaborators, meticulously prepares his shots for maximum visual or emotional impact. 

For the record, the more evocative German title translates as In the Labyrinth of Silence, where the word used for silence clearly indicates this was the result of people either keeping silent or being forced to remain silent.

Production companies: Claussen + Woebke + Putz Filmproduktion, Naked Eye Filmproduction

Cast: Alexander Fehling, Andre Szymanski, Friederike Becht, Johannes Kirsch, Hansi Jochmann, Johann von Buelow, Robert Hunger-Buehler, Lukas Miko, Gert Voss

Director: Giulio Ricciarelli

Screenplay: Elisabeth Bartel, Giulio Ricciarelli

Producers: Uli Putz, Sabine Lamby, Jakob Claussen

Director of photography: Martin Langer, Roman Osin

Production designer: Manfred Doering

Costume designer: Aenne Plaumann

Editor: Andrea Mertens

Music: Niki Reiser, Sebastian Pille

Sales: Beta Cinema


No rating, 122 minutes