DVD Review - Labyrinth of Lies

This film was Germany's official submission to the 88th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It made the December shortlist, but it didn't get the nomination. It was nominated for several Lola Awards, including its top prize but lost to Victoria, a film that is way more energetic and gives us something fresh and bold. Holocaust stories are of course important, and constant reminders of the Holocaust are also important, but this film is very pedestrian. While it tells an important story, it does so in a very boring fashion.

Essentially, the story being told is the Auschwitz trial in 1963 where 19 men were charged with Nazi war-crimes or basically murder. Instead of being about the trial itself and showing us the trial, this film, directed and co-written by Giulio Ricciarelli, depicts the five years leading up to the trial.

The reason Ricciarelli does this is because the point he wants to make has something to do with discovery. This movie is about a young German man 20 years separated from the start of World War II and not really knowing much about it. He in fact knows nothing about what happened at Auschwitz and his work on preparing for the trial is his education of it.

Alexander Fehling (Inglourious Basterds and Homeland) stars as Johann Radmann, the aforementioned German who knew nothing of Auschwitz. Comparisons to Spotlight are the obvious corollaries here, but this movie is not about a team of reporters or the journalistic process, not necessarily. It centers on Johann who is a prosecuting attorney in Frankfurt, Germany.

A journalist named Thomas Gnielka, played by André Szymanski, brings Johann information on the man who would be the first of the 19 put on trial as Nazi guards at Auschwitz. Like in Spotlight or any police and legal drama, what proceeds is Johann and Thomas working together to interview witnesses and find evidence. They studiously go through paperwork, documents that are now decades old, often doing tedious grunt-work, in order to prove the case.

The camerawork isn't as plain or as straight-forward as Spotlight. Ricciarelli's cinematography is a step or two above. It's more rich in color. It also romanticizes the whole process more than Tom McCarthy who helmed Spotlight. Ricciarelli, for example, delves into Johann's love of a beautiful woman who is captured warmly and glowingly. There's also a glamour shot of Fehling who sits shirtless in a window in a post-sexual haze.

Whether that romantic aspect was appropriate is unclear. It certainly wasn't appropriate for McCarthy who wanted his film to be stark. Given Johann's distance from the crimes, it makes sense. He's meant to be removed from it in a way that McCarthy's characters aren't. This is the point of Ricciarelli's film. It's seeing that gap and what needs to be done to close or bridge it.

The problem is that Ricciarelli never explains fully how that gap came to be. There's a nebulous intimation that the gap is the result of a conspiracy to erase history or have it be ignored. The film hints at this conspiracy, but it never takes a stand or goes far enough with it. In reality, there seems to be no reason that Johann wouldn't know about Auschwitz, so his surprise or discovery of the horror of it makes no sense.

Johann is a young man, probably in his mid to late twenties. Maybe he's in his early thirties. He was more than likely a little kid while the Holocaust was happening, but he's now a lawyer living in Germany. He's an educated man. Are we to believe that no history class taught what happened or he had no curiosity to learn about it prior to his encountering Thomas in 1958. As a German lawyer, are we to assume he never studied the Nuremberg trials, or explored those things?

I understand that there is a phenomenon known as "Holocaust denial" that isn't just based in pure antisemitism. It's based on the fact that the Nazis tried to destroy all evidence and historical record of what they were doing. The book The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank had just come out and wasn't as wide-spread as well as other media. It's not as if Johann had access to the Internet, but it seems incredulous that he would be so surprised.

Maybe I'm mistaking his surprise for simply being appalled. However, talk of Auschwitz seems to come from a place of ignorance on Johann's part. Maybe I'm misinterpreting, but learning about Auschwitz looks like an eye-opening experience for Johann. If that, I don't get how such an educated man could have his eyes opened thusly. Ricciarelli doesn't explain his disillusionment.

Johann is a grown man, but he's like a child in his perspective. His outlook is somewhat simplistic and naive. Perhaps, that's the point. I don't know. Johann and people in his German generation coming in the wake of WWII probably were ignorant or naive. Maybe there were a lot of people who needed to discover the Holocaust even 20 years out, but Ricciarelli should have given us more about the mindset and backstory, which would have produced Johann's ignorance or naivety.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for a scene of sexuality.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 4 mins.


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