Movie review: Labyrinth of Lies

By Peter Calder

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Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann in the movie Labyrinth of Lies.
Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann in the movie Labyrinth of Lies.

Nations have an inexhaustible capacity to forget their problematic pasts, as our own history shows.

The movies' most striking demonstration of that is surely Patricio Guzman's chilling 1996 Obstinate Memory, in which he finds his fellow Chileans unable or unwilling to remember the brutality of the 1973 coup and the following 15 years of junta rule.

Labyrinth of Lies dramatises the campaign that led to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of 1963-1965 in which 750 of 789 SS officers charged were convicted.

Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann in the movie Labyrinth of Lies.
Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann in the movie Labyrinth of Lies.

The trials were significant because the charges were brought not under international "crimes against humanity" laws, but under the West German criminal code: they were the first German judicial blow against the national amnesia.

Director Ricciarelli and co-writer Elisabeth Bartel, both making feature debuts, have created a main character, Johann Radmann (Fehling), who is a composite of the entire prosecutorial effort; other key figures, notably a journalist Thomas Gnielka (Szymanski) and Radmann's boss Fritz Bauer (Voss), were real people.

With this partial fictionalisation, the filmmakers can romanticise the story to some extent and Fehling, whose face is familiar from Inglourious Basterds and Homeland, has the matinee idol looks to carry a heroic role But there are several scenes and plot developments that have a schematic, template-like feel to them.

Radmann is a junior prosecutor dealing with traffic violations who - thanks in large part to Gnielka's taunting - becomes aware of the official indifference, if not outright hostility, to the idea of going after the mass murderers hiding in plain sight in post-war West Germany.

At the same time, he becomes the viewer's proxy, as he learns the full horror of what occurred while he was just a kid. A montage of unheard witness interviews over a soundtrack of sacred Jewish music is astonishingly moving.

It would be an exaggeration to say the film is alive to the nuances of the story: when a senior prosecutor asks him, "Do you want every young man in this country to wonder whether his father was a murderer?", it reduces to black and white a question that had a lot more than 50 shades of grey.

But the filmmakers are smart enough to let a romantic subplot enliven the story without taking it over - the last scenes involving Radmann and his leading lady (Becht) are skilfully handled - and the film is a solid account of an important episode.

Review: Labyrinth of Lies

Cast: Alexander Fehling, Andre Szymanski, Friederike Becht, Johannes Krisch, Gert Voss Director: Giulio Ricciarelli
Running time: 121 mins
Rating: M (sex scenes, content that may disturb) In German with English subtitles
Verdict: Schematic but solid account of an important story

- TimeOut

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