Movie Review: Labyrinth of Lies (2014)
If you’re debating which movie to see on the 1950s investigations that led to the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65—and who isn’t?—you can always compare how each did at the German Film Awards. “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” in which Bauer captures Adolf Eichmann with the help of Mossad, was nominated for five Lolas and won four, including best film, direction and screenplay. A year earlier, this one, in which a prosecutor unsuccessfully pursues Josef Mengele, was nominated for four Lolas and won null.
Which seems about right to me.
“Labyrinth of Lies” is a procedural, but for the first 40 minutes we wait for the young, handsome, by-the-book prosecutor Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), working in Frankfurt in the late 1950s, to come up to speed. As in: He has to learn that the Holocaust happened.
That this generation of Germans didn’t know about the Holocaust, or Auschwitz, comes as a bit of a shock. It certainly demonstrates the necessity of the Auschwitz Trials; but it’s also dull. It’s like waiting for the hero to figure out the sky is blue.
The conflict, too, is by-the-book. Radmann’s colleagues mock his pursuit, but the bossman, Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), is on his side so he keeps going. An American functionary ridicules his search but respects his diligence enough to bring him a cup of coffee. Ex-Nazis lurk everywhere, smirking in the shadows. A journalist, Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski), hounds him to do more, then partners with him in doing more, then is dropped by him when it’s discovered that he, the journalist, was a 17-year-old guard at Auschwitz. Radmann winds up getting drunk and losing his way and losing his way-hot girlfriend (Friederike Becht). He goes from knowing nothing about the Holocaust to knowing nothing about forgiveness. He becomes unreasonable. We know he’ll come around.
We know too much because too many scenes are clichés. Radmann has a nightmare in which he pursues Mengele through creepy, lab hallways, spins him around, then wakes up before seeing his face. After he discovers his own father was a Nazi, he has the same dream, but this time, we know, it’s his father’s face he’ll see. We know that when he begs off after a bedridden friend, Simon (Johannes Krisch), asks him to say the kaddish at Auschwitz for his daughters, he’ll find time to do it in the end. He does, with Gnielka, whom he forgives, as we knew he would. And as they walk along the Auschwitz fences, away from the camera, we know Radmann will put his hand on Gnielka’s back as a sign of reconciliation.
One moment sticks with me. When Radmann has that nightmare, in quick shots, he sees his face in multiple mirrors as if it had been experimented on by Mengele: swollen eyes sewn shut, etc. The morning after I watched the film, I woke up thinking of that, and more, thinking of Simon’s twin girls: imagining their horror and helplessness. They knew little of this world before they were turned into human lab rats. The movie needed more of the horror I felt for them, and for us.