A new film explores the long, difficult struggle to bring Nazis to justice in postwar Germany.
It’s become an axiom of politics that the cover-up is always worse than the crime. The rare exception is Germany’s amnesia, ignorance and denial in the 1950s.
The riveting German drama, Labyrinth of Lies, the directorial debut of half-Italian, half-German actor-producer Giulio Ricciarelli, explores the orchestrated silence of that period through the events and individual perseverance that led to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of 1963-65.
Idealistic prosecutor Johann Radmann (a composite, played by Alexander Fehling, of three young lawyers who worked for Prosecutor General Fritz Bauer) learns from a journalist that a former Nazi is employed as a schoolteacher. This minor case launches him on a wider, controversial investigation that eventually makes Auschwitz, then unknown to most Germans (including Radmann himself), a household word.
“For a German film about this period that also talks about the Holocaust, we didn’t want to invent historical facts,” Ricciarelli says in a telephone interview from New York. “What we invented was an emotional journey. Radmann is very black and white and he knows what’s right and what’s wrong, and it’s his journey to humility while he confronts what actually happened in his country. In the end, he’s a changed man.”
Labyrinth of Lies opens Nov. 6 at the Ritz East Theater.
The 50-year-old Ricciarelli was born in Milan and educated in Germany, where he learned about the Holocaust in school. But he never heard about the formidable Bauer (played by the imposing Gert Voss) and the Auschwitz trial.
“The story was basically forgotten in Germany,” Ricciarelli relates. “To me that is so amazing because the Auschwitz trial and the Eichmann trial [in Israel] were the turning point for the German people to look at what had happened, and to deal with it.”
Labyrinth of Lies unfolds as an accessible mystery investigation via a classical structure and clever plotting, but it presented a challenge and a paradox for its novice director and co-writer. The Nazi period and the Holocaust are widely known and images of the genocide are pervasive today, but that wasn’t remotely the case in Germany in the late 1950s.
“It’s not a film about Auschwitz, but you have to have a feeling of the devastation for the drama to work,” Ricciarelli explains. “We rely on what’s already in the soul and imagination of the audience. When the victims are testifying, there’s just music and you don’t hear any concrete story. Because if you put an actor in a costume and even if he acts well, the audience knows he’s an actor. Today, in 2015, I would not dare to do that anymore. As I would not dare to show a scene in the camp, because the audience knows it’s actors and costumes.”
While audiences want to be touched and moved by a film, Ricciarelli is loathe to manipulate them when the material is as important—and loaded—as it is in “Labyrinth of Lies.” He cites one of the more emotional scenes, of a survivor recounting, “And then they told me” what Mengele did to his children.
“You don’t have a direct testimony, but you have the drama of a man who imagines everything he hears having happened to his children,” Ricciarelli says. “This is very much the concept of the film.”
The director participated in several Q-and-A’s when the film opened in Germany last fall to positive reviews, and was surprised how the theme of dealing with the past — and the question of what one’s parents did — is still so relevant to many families.
Ricciarelli recalls one woman confessing, “My grandfather left a box, and it’s locked, and we are all afraid to open the box because we don’t want to know what Grandfather did during the war.”
Amnesia is no longer possible, but denial and ignorance are still options, apparently. Not everyone is onboard, though: “Labyrinth of Lies” is Germany’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.