Of all of Hitler’s crimes, perhaps the most insidious was giving the people of Germany a scapegoat for the atrocities of the holocaust. Post war Germany was awash with former members of the Nazi party, criminals who hid in plain sight under the camouflage of Hitler’s guilt. While the Nuremberg trials did well to erase “just following orders” as a legitimate defense—for then and for all time—the truth of the matter is that an entire generation shared the burden of guilt together. As Germany began the process of healing, the nation, for a time, collectively allowed themselves to forget the crimes, to distance themselves from the horrors, and to deny the worst of the rumors. Victors may write the stories, but the losers get to toss it up to propaganda. So effective was Hitler’s grip on the nation that the people of Germany were able to create of cloud of denial to hide their collective shame. The worst of the stories were dismissed as hearsay and lies, and untold numbers of former Nazis were allowed to go on with their lives, as if nothing had ever happened.
In a way, that makes sense. Humans are nothing if not masters of justification and compartmentalization. Guilty parties were allowed a certain amount of leeway, for a time, and everyone just ignored the hidden truth. It would take a younger generation, burdened greatly by the sins of their fathers, to dig through the past to find the truth and allow the full story to come into the light for once and for all.
This is the dynamic explored in Labyrinth of Lies. Ostensibly a legal drama, it’s a meditation on a nation whose soul was in dire need of cleansing in the decade following the fall of the Nazi Party. It’s a film that offers the kind of nuance and perspective that we’ve never really seen given to post-Nazi Germany, owed mainly to the fact that it was a German production.
Young attorney Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) is a fresh faced greenhorn for the state prosecution, assigned mostly to matters of traffic violations. After meeting local reporter Thomas Gnielka (Andre Szymanski), who’s been writing stories about a former Auschwitz prisoner who had an unexpected run in with one of his former guards, Radmann becomes obsessed with finding out the truth behind the rumors and the talk. The deeper he goes into his investigation, the more the stark reality begins to hit him—he is living amid a nation of criminals and murderers whose crimes were allowed to be forgotten. Paranoia and scandal become his life as he prepares for the first German prosecution of former Nazis.
As a dramatization of actual events, Labyrinth of Lies explores the post war period from strictly a German perspective. Unlike other films about World War 2 and Nazis, it never asks, “How did this happen?” Rather, it asks, “How did we let this happen?” It’s really not something we, as Americans, give too much thought to. How does a nation and its people come to grips with themselves after the horrors they allowed to happen? How did the sons and daughters of the Nazi party look into the mirror knowing what their fathers did? In that way, it’s a remarkable, poignant film masquerading as a taut legal thriller.
The film was Germany’s official entry into the Best Foreign Film category in the upcoming Academy Awards, and for good reason. While we won’t know for some months whether or not it will receive the nod, it certainly fits the mold well and would easily be the film to beat. Fehling gives a knockout performance as Radmann, a man who symbolizes all the sons of Germany during the collective awakening. The entirety of Labyrinth of Lies weighs on his shoulders, just as the weight of the crimes committed weighs on Radmann’s. As Radmann slips further into anger and paranoia, Fehling handles his character with deft skill, giving an intricate turn worthy of acclaim.
At times, however, the film does drag, and there are a couple of subplots that could’ve been shortened or done away with all together. They work well enough, I suppose, to deepen the story and offer other perspectives on the issue, but the film is about 2 hours and 10 minutes when 1 hour and 50 would’ve sufficed. This does throw off pacing a little bit, but never enough to lessen my overall enjoyment of the work.
History buffs might scoff at a few of the inaccuracies portrayed in the movie, but no one can deny the spirit of the film. Labyrinth of Lies is a worthy entry into the exploration of the Nazi’s and their effects on Germany, and represents a true philosophical musing on the nature of war and shared guilt.
Labyrinth of Lies is now playing in limited release.