'Labyrinth of Lies'
The core of ‘Labyrinth of Lies’, Germany’s official entry in this year’s Best Foreign Language Film race, is intriguing and relevant. The film is about the court case that brought officers from Auschwitz to trial years after their horrendous crimes. It’s about the burden of the German people to accept the national crimes of World War II and the importance of never forgetting such atrocities. That’s strong material to hinge a movie around, and indeed there’s a great deal to admire here. Unfortunately, it’s also told in such a tediously handsome and awards-courting manner that the telling almost betrays the remarkable story.
Alexander Fehling stars as Johnn Radmann, a young German prosecutor in 1958 who, like most of his generation, is largely clueless about Germany’s recent war crimes. One day, a reporter (Andre Szymanski) barges into his office accusing a local school teacher of being an officer in Auschwitz and demanding that he be brought to justice, but no one will even acknowledge him. Eventually, he confronts Johann and the young man doesn’t even know what Auschwitz was. After a little research, he becomes so disturbed that he insists on mounting a court case that will finally bring all the living officers assigned to the death camp to trial. With the support of the prosecutor’s office, he begins the difficult task of interviewing survivors, tracking down perpetrators, and confronting a great national shame that had been treated as a dark secret until that point.
The best section of the film comes as Johann uncovers these horrors from the past. Without dwelling too much on specific details, the filmmakers effectively convey the weight of merely hearing the horrors and the anguish that the young man experiences learning of his own family’s involvement in the Nazi party. It’s a powerful exploration of coming to terms with horrible truths and finding the strength to accept the past by trying to right the future. Hinging the movie around building this trial allows director Giulio Ricciarelli to explore the pain of this period in Germany’s history through a detective movie structure. It’s a way of tackling a difficult subject through familiar dramatic means that doesn’t necessarily make the material entertaining, but certainly makes it approachable and also provides a new spin on well-worn prestige picture material.
Unfortunately, while that adherence to detective movie formula proves to be a success, Ricciarelli’s commitment to using other familiar formulas to tell a difficult story proves to be more frustrating. The film has a tacked-on love story that feels needlessly manipulative purely to prove a moral point. A few ridiculous dream sequences attempt to express the burden that taking on this case had on Radmann’s psyche, but they’re hopelessly hokey. In the final act, so much focus is placed on the suspense of hunting down a single Auschwitz officer that it needlessly simplifies the case. Coupled with a tediously handsome and predictably prestigious visual style, ‘Labyrinth of Lies’ panders to audiences a little bit too much, even if it serves the noble goal of making a difficult story easier for those audiences to swallow.
Make no mistake, ‘Labyrinth of Lies’ is still a very strong piece of work. So many films have been made about the Holocaust over the last few decades that it’s often difficult for filmmakers to find anything interesting to do with the important subject matter. By focusing on the national pain and guilt that followed years of denial in Germany, Ricciarelli has found a fascinating new avenue to explore that opens old wounds from a fresh and fascinating angle. It’s just a shame that the craft and storytelling are so by-the-numbers. Still, it’s a decent movie that will likely be among this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar contenders.