by Ralph Seliger
Reviewed in this essay: Labyrinth of Lies, a film by Giulio Ricciarelli, written by Elisabeth Bartel and Giulio Ricciarelli. Sony Pictures Classics, 2014, 124 minutes.
AT THE DRAMATIC CORE of Labyrinth of Lies — Germany’s nominee for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film — is a young West German prosecutor, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), working against a maze of deceit and denial to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. This is a fictionalized account of the investigation that led to the 1963 trial of twenty-two defendants who had been SS guards at Auschwitz — described in the film’s closing notes as the first time a country prosecuted its own citizens for war crimes. Some 360 witnesses were called to give evidence, including more than 200 survivors.
The film makes tangential references to what was happening simultaneously in Israel with the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann. Interestingly, the Eichmann trial had a similar educational role and emotional impact for Israelis as the Auschwitz trial had for Germany. In both countries, these trials ended a near-taboo against discussing the Holocaust. Up until then, Holocaust survivors in Israel had been largely silent, ashamed of their victimhood, which was antithetical to the Zionist ethos of the “new” physically strong and self-confident Jew. As for Germany, the film argues that — notwithstanding the 1952 reparations agreement between Germany and Israel — most Germans were neither aware of nor interested in the Holocaust until after the 1963 trial. In one scene, Radmann goes from person to person emotionally asking if he or she has ever heard of Auschwitz — with not one responding affirmatively. Most of those who knew something took the attitude of the hostile Frankfurt chief prosecutor, who explains in the film that while held in an Allied prisoner-of-war camp and shown films of Nazi atrocities, he and his fellow German prisoners discounted it as anti-German war propaganda.
Radmann is actually a composite of two young attorneys (later joined by a third) who conducted the real-life prosecution. His love affair with a lively woman who aspires to be a clothing designer is also an invention, providing more human interest and perhaps symbolizing West Germany’s post-war recovery, often referred to as its “economic miracle.”
IF LABYRINTH OF LIES were a documentary, the focus would have to be primarily on Fritz Bauer (1903-1968), a real-life German Jew and a Social Democratic Party (SPD) activist who went into exile from Nazi Germany in Denmark, and later joined Willy Brandt — the SPD leader and first leftwing chancellor of West Germany — in neutral Sweden. According to Arieh Lebowitz, the associate director of the Jewish Labor Committee, Bauer was aided materially by the JLC, as were many other social democratic politicians and labor union leaders who struggled to survive during the Nazi era.
Upon returning to Germany, Bauer (played in the film by the late Gert Voss) chose to work in the judiciary rather than in electoral politics. In 1944, prior to his return, he published a book with a title that expressed his most earnest objective: Prosecute the War Criminals. He became the attorney general of the West German state of Hesse, the larger jurisdiction under which the Auschwitz prosecutors did their work in the city of Frankfurt am Main. Bauer passed away in 1968, but public and private contributions established a foundation in his name, the Fritz Bauer Institute, in Frankfurt in 1995. It is dedicated to research, social dialogue and public education on Holocaust-era crimes and related civil-rights issues.
Another true-life character in the film is Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski), a journalist who had a Jewish painter friend, Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), who lost his wife and two little daughters in Auschwitz. A chance encounter of Kirsch with one of his former concentration camp guards (presented in the film as a brutally authoritarian school teacher), sparked the criminal investigations that followed; the “meetings of survivor and tormentor in Germany after the war was something that happened,” the filmmakers confirmed to me via email. Their encounter also led to an unsuccessful pursuit of Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s infamous “Angel of Death.” (Kirsch’s daughters had the misfortune, as twins, to be subjected to Mengele’s unspeakable “experiments.”) In the film, the Mossad’s capture of Eichmann precludes the possibility that Mengele would also be brought to justice. Bauer explains to his distraught disciple Radmann that it was never in the cards to apprehend both, as the taking of one would immediately cause the other to flee.
The remarkable German repentance about the Holocaust dates from this very public trial. West German culture was transformed, with the younger generations challenging their parents and grandparents about what they did during the war and the Nazi years. Part of this transformation was shown in the caring attitude that both the German state and young Germans took toward Israel, with many young Germans visiting Israel and volunteering on kibbutzim. It’s also expressed in Germany’s help in reviving its Jewish community today, largely with immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Israel.
Perhaps we are seeing a further resonance of this repentance in the generous response of Germany today to the enormous wave of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Of all the European countries, not to mention the U.S., Germany — under a conservative head of government — is taking the lead and displaying moral leadership in its willingness to accept up to 800,000 refugees.
It would be a mistake to suggest that Germany — or any country — is a spotless exemplar of moral rectitude, but it did change for the better, largely as a result of the spotlight cast by this trial in Frankfurt. Labyrinth of Lies provides a well-acted and powerful presentation on what transpired to make a smug, self-satisfied society transcend its morally vacant pursuit of prosperity to come to grips with its greatest failings as a nation.
The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on September 30th, with a national roll-out in October.
Ralph Seliger is a long-time editor and writer, mostly on Israeli and Jewish political and cultural issues, who has contributed to Jewish Currents since 1995. He currently blogs for Ameinu and Partners for Progressive Israel.