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Still Shocking After all These Years: “Labyrinth of Lies”

Still Shocking After all These Years: “Labyrinth of Lies”

Just when you think you’ve seen all the stories that could
possibly emanate from World War II and its aftermath, another comes along—like
this one—that invites one to say, “Why didn’t I know about this before?” Labyrinth of Lies begins in 1958, when
many Germans had never heard of Auschwitz, believe it or not. The story centers
on a young, ambitious public prosecutor (Alexander Fehling) who learns that a
former Nazi officer at the notorious concentration camp is now working as a
schoolteacher in Frankfurt. He insists that the man be arrested and soon learns
that there is a conspiracy of silence among pubic officials who would rather
let sleeping dogs lie.

The movie
works because it isn’t a polemic. It creates interesting, three-dimensional
characters and situations. Fehling is well-cast as the hero, a naïve young man
whose moral outrage is completely credible. The character is actually a
composite of three real-life figures who worked on this case. There are times
when we in the audience are one jump ahead of him, more willing to believe the
worst than he is, but screenwriters Giulio Ricciarelli (who also directed) and
Elisabeth Bartel do a good job of making him relatable and not merely a
figurehead.

Depending on
how much you know of post-war Germany, the film also offers revelations: in
spite of the famous Nuremberg Trials, no “ordinary people” had been prosecuted
for their crimes during the war. The German government allowed Josef Mengele to
come and go from Argentina at will to visit his family. And preparations for
what became the Auschwitz Trials gave survivors the first opportunity to voice
their experiences and be recognized. That, the head prosecutor explains to our
hero, is what the trials are all about—not punishment so much as acknowledgment.

I wish the
movie’s title wasn’t so obvious and on-the-nose (in Germany it’s called Labyrinth of Silence, which is no
improvement). I’m aware that many critics feel the same way about the picture
itself, with “earnest” being the kindest word in their reviews. But I found it
thoroughly absorbing, a worthwhile movie that frames its agenda in a
well-rounded dramatic narrative. The subject matter is timeless and its message
as relevant as ever.

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