Back to IndieWire

Dir. Giulio Ricciarelli and Star Alexander Fehling on the Historical Relevance of ‘Labyrinth of Lies’ and Germany’s Open Wound

Dir. Giulio Ricciarelli on the Historical Relevance of 'Labyrinth of Lies' and Germany's Open Wound

“You were all Nazis,” exclaims an American sergeant when a
young German prosecutor, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), requests to see records from WWII that incriminate all those who
played a role in the Nazi’s final solution. While the statement broadly generalizes the role everyday Germans
played in the unspeakable genocide, it effectively encompasses the philosophical
debate at the center of Giulio Ricciarelli‘s historical drama “Labyrinth of Lies.”

Ignorance and indifference towards their country’s deeds prevailed among the German population during the years immediately after the war
ended. The people did not want to hear that their neighbor, their relative, or their own
husband or wife was involved in the murder of millions of people across Europe.
Grappling with such devastating guilt was a process that Germany as a country couldn’t begin until the truth was known, and until those who willingly participated
were exposed, tried and punished.

In order to explore the ramifications and importance of the
country putting its own soldiers on trial, Ricciarelli decided not to
focus on the actual trials but rather on the uphill battle that Prosecutor
General Fritz Bauer and public prosecutors, personified here via Johann, had to
undergo in order to begin to mend the damage that silence and misinformation had
caused. Classically crafted with impeccable locations, distinctive production design, perfect
costumes, and a certain European elegance, “Labyrinth of Lies” is a fantastic
example of top-notch filmmaking in service of a resonant story that is thought-provoking,
morally complex, and completely engrossing.

During this extensive conversation with the Italian-born filmmaker Giulio Ricciarelli and the star of the film, Alexander Fehling, we discussed the multiple themes explored through Johann’s transformation, the historical relevance of Fritz Bauer’s trials, and the open wound that still haunts numerous families in Germany and elsewhere.

“Labyrinth of Lies” is now playing in select cities in the U.S. via Sony Pictures Classics.

Aguilar: As a
filmmaker you are dealing with a very serious and important historical subject
in “Labyrinth of Lies,” yet you manage to make a balanced experience that even
includes a few moments of lightness. Why was this tonal complexity important
for your story?

The subject is of course heavy and the same time we wanted to
make a true feature film.  There’s also the Italian part me of that thinks in
every drama there is also lightness and in humor there is sadness. It’s always
good when a movie has both. I also felt it was important that it was almost
like music. There are some scenes that go very deep and that people are moved
by, but then you have to breathe and there is a moment of laughter. It becomes
more rhythmical almost like a musical piece. If you make music you cannot just
have forte all the time, people would just be turned off. This is something
that we were looking for, to make it an actual experience where you take the
audience deeper and deeper into the story. Sometimes that means letting your
audience breathe or allow for laughter with a lighter scene instead of just
hammering the subject home, because when a film does that it becomes very

Aguilar: Alex, your character decomposes
spiritually in front of our eyes. He starts out like a very eager young man
trying to make a difference and by the end of the film he has gone on this
profound trip discovering the darkness in his country’s past. What was the most
difficult aspect about playing Johann?

Alexander Fehling: It
was a gift. First of all, it’s always great when you have a story that is more
than you think you are capable of playing and you have a subject that is more
than just a fictional story. Like you said, the arc of the character is very
interesting and it goes many ways, that’s how we experience life as well right?
It’s very ambiguous, and it’s complicated, and it contradicts itself; all of
these things you find in this character. In the beginning of the film he
is pretty sure of himself and he thinks that he knows what is right and what is
wrong. The biggest point is that he thinks he knows how he would have acted in
situations like that and in the end he arrives at another level where he
understands that his perception of all these things was way too simplistic and
there is a certain dignity about him in the end. It was a very interesting
character to play.

Aguilar: At first he
has a very superficial and erroneous view of what happened, very clear-cut, black
and white, but then there is a scene where he is interviewing the first of many
Holocaust survivors. He hears the atrocities and the number of people who died, and it seems like a powerful, non-verbal, turning point in the film. His
expression says it all.

Alexander Fehling: There
is this long silence with hundreds of thoughts.

Aguilar: He doesn’t
say a word but we know he just realized the magnitude of it all. 

That scene was always quite essential to make people feel
how difficult it must have been to enter this without knowing about it, which
was the case for these prosecutors. If I said to you, you can investigate the
crimes against the Native Americans, you’d say, “Yes, that’s a great job,” and
then the second thought would be, “How do I start?” It’s a huge subject. Johann
has those feelings. He is young, he is ambitious, he is glad to have the job,
but suddenly he realizes this is much more enormous. One of the most important
things for us was to convey how far the denial, or the sweeping under the rug,
had gone in Germany. We wanted to emphasize that he didn’t know and that a lot
of people had no idea of what had happened there. That was important. Also,
that scene was a blessing from the actors.  All five actors in the scene are excellent, Alexander of
course, the secretary, the translator, and the Polish survivor. They gave
extraordinary performances. It’s one of my favorite scenes because it’s like if
you are fishing and you suddenly realize it’s not a fish but a whale that you
have. It’s a huge, powerful, painful, and complex scene, and he grasps all of
these things in this moment.

Aguilar: There
is also another important revelation in Johann’s journey that has to do with
his own father.

Giulio Ricciarelli: The father is important because there is a scene that’s actually like the prelude when
Friedberg asks him “You want every son to ask himself if his father was a
murderer?” And Johann says,  “Yes, that’s exactly what I want!” At that point we
know he is obsessed. But then when it happens to him he does what everybody
else does, he denies at first. What makes the character a hero, in my opinion, is
that he asks. The first reaction is very human, he says, “No, I don’t want
to hear about it. It’s a lie.” He then has a dream where his obsession with
Mengele and his father kind of merge. After this he goes to the American and asks,
“What did my father do?” The American says, “Don’t go
there,” but Johann replies, “I have to know!” That is very brave
in a very classical sense 

Alexander Fehling: Do you think he is a hero?

Giulio Ricciarelli:  Yes, to me a hero is one who does the right thing. It’s
heroic that he doesn’t deny it and that he starts asking. He confronts his own
father at that moment.

Aguilar: Who is the person or memory he holds the most

Giulio Ricciarelli: Yes, and that destroys him to a certain
degree. Then there is this whole sequence where he breaks up with the girl and
his friends confesses what he did. He is almost lost because he quits his job
and starts working for an attorney, and as a film that’s as close as you come
to being lost. He then goes to Auschwitz and he changes and becomes a new man. 

Aguilar: The fact that he first has to be
hurt and destroyed before he can become a new man seems to be a metaphor that
speaks about the way one must first confront the truth, even if it’s harsh, and
then from there change and evolve. That seems to really relate to the experience
of the German people who had to face the horrific reality of what they as a
country did. Is this something you wanted to explore via this character?

Giulio Ricciarelli: Absolutely, but that is something that’s up
for debate. There are many people who would say, “No, that doesn’t work.”
I believe that in our personal life and also as a country, you have to face who
you are and what happened in your past to be able to build a future. You can
talk to many people who will say, “Don’t look at traumas, just look forward.”
It makes no sense, but I believe very strongly that is essential. That’s really
about being a phoenix out of the ashes or a caterpillar. That’s a big myth of
humanity, dying and being reborn basically. 

Alexander Fehling: Even in our personal lives I think. When do
we as human beings change? When do we change? We don’t change when we should,
we don’t change when we want to, we change when we can’t stand where we are
anymore. When we just can’t do it anymore, when it’s too much, then you either
die or you are reborn and you change something. You decide on something whether
you know it’s right or wrong. 

Aguilar: These trials and the story leading
up to them pitted Germans against Germans. It’s not against a foreign country, it’s
all within this society grappling with their very recent past. It’s
definitely one of the most thought-provoking ideas in the film.

Giulio Ricciarelli: That
was the historical dimension. It was the first time that kind of trial ever happened in history, not only in German history, but in all of history. There had
never been a trial where a country tried its own soldiers for what they
did. A country would put its soldiers on trial when they would flee from the
enemy. Then there was a trial with a court-martial, but the whole concept of a
country judging its own soldiers was a big part of Fritz Bauer’s work. He said,
“Nobody has the right to obedience,” in the sense that everybody is
an individual and is responsible for what he does, even in a war. This was
a very new concept that today in democracies we take for granted, we are used
to it, but back then it was unthinkable. The fact that this trial actually happened
was a huge historic step, not only for Germany but also for all countries.

Aguilar: They dared to confront their own

Giulio Ricciarelli: That
was Fritz Bauer’s vision. He didn’t do the trial for revenge. He wanted to
educate people. He said, “Germans sitting in judgement over Germans, it has to
be done,” and that was the historical dimension of it. 

Aguilar: What has been the reaction toward the film in Germany? Would you say there is still an open wound even after all
these years? When a movie like “Labyrinth of Lies” comes around, does it still
stir up feelings from the past?

Giulio Ricciarelli: Germany has made the decision to deal
with the past, but this time, this trial and Fritz, are almost forgotten. What
was very interesting to me is that within certain families it’s still very much
raw and alive. It’s still an open wound in a way in many families still today.
We do Q&As and people come to us and they tell us their stories. I had one
woman come to me and said, “You know we have a box from our grandfather in
our family and it’s locked. We are all afraid to open the box because we don’t
want to know what our grandfather did during the war.” Another woman came
and said that, through the publicity we had done for the film on the Internet,
she found out somebody from her family was on trial at the Fritz trial. For 50
years she had no idea and because it was one of the prominent names she saw it
and said, “That’s my family!” She had found out just months before
watching the film. We also met a Vietnamese journalist that was so emotional
because the film resonated so much with her own story. There is still a lot of

I felt it was an important story, but I thought the wound was by now a
scar, that it was healed over. The truth is that if you look at what’s still
going on in a lot of families, it’s still there. Another time in Brussels
somebody in the audience said, “Is it not time to stop telling this
story,” and I said, “You know, first of all I think it’s a story that
hasn’t been told.” Then I told him what I just told you about how many
people are still alive dealing with this and I quoted Faulkner, “The past
is never dead, it’s not even past.” Then this other young woman came to me
and she was crying and said, “Thank you for the movie, but also thank you
for what you just said. My grandfather died in Auschwitz.” This young
woman doesn’t have a grandfather, and that’s something she still feels. She was
crying, so that’s not a wound that has healed because she will live with that
her whole life. She definitely felt that in that moment very much. That was something
that actually surprised us. 

Alexander Fehling: In short the reaction has been very positive
[Laughs]. But it’s also fair to say that for the younger generation is tired of
the subject. Not everybody, but many people who are even younger than me or my
generation think, “OK, this has nothing to do with my life. I don’t watch
these movies anymore. I don’t want to hear abut it anymore. I heard it in
school. I know enough about it.” Unfortunately there is a certain
tiredness or indifference about it. 

Giulio Ricciarelli: I
was at the Museum of Tolerance here in LA and the scholars have a word for it,
they call it “Holocaust Fatigue.” It’s really a term and not just in
Germany. That’s something I think that people who make films about memory and
about this time have to deal with. There is this feeling of tiredness, but it
was never somebody who saw our film. 

Alexander Fehling: This tiredness is a fact and this is Germany
today. This indifference is interesting too and these young people will be
older one day as well and their perception might change. 

Perhaps, but even if they feel like this has nothing to do with them, in some
ways this chapter in history, the Holocaust and WWII, is embedded into the
German identity, particular outside of Germany.

Alexander Fehling: Absolutely.

Aguilar: There is a line in the film
delivered by the American character, “You were all Nazis!” Certainly
he doesn’t mean that every single person was actively involved, but indirectly
it’s a shared responsibility. How can the country deal with something so terrible
at such great scale? Was this something that you though about while writing the film.

Giulio Ricciarelli: I
think there is a certain tendency in the movies that come out of Germany to not
tell the story in that way but to tell stories about five evil Nazis and say that
everyone else was just part of the confused population. There is a tendency to
tell it like that; that’s what my movie doesn’t do. There is a line where Mulka
says, “I just followed orders,” and Johann ironically says, “Yeah,
everybody just followed orders and in the end is just Hitler’s fault.” The
movie doesn’t support that, but at the same time that’s the other part that I
feel is very important, that it doesn’t sit on a high moral horse. Instead, the
main character says, “I don’t know what I would have done.” If everyone
who thinks about these times tells the truth, we would say that we don’t know
how we would react. In a way that’s the obsession of Alexander’s character:
what’s right and what’s wrong. Fritz says to him, “That’s not what this
is about. It’s not about who is guilty. It’s about the stories and putting this
on the map.” That’s something his character goes through. There is also a
character who to me is very vital, Haller, the other prosecutor who works
with Johann. He has an epiphany and says, “All we had to do was open our
eyes.” Maybe you were not involved in the Holocaust, but you didn’t ask or
you asked once and they told you it was a protection camp and you said,
“OK, it was a protection camp.”

Alexander Fehling: And that kind of makes you part of this whole
thing. On the other hand, it’s an American character that says the line you

Which of course makes it trickier in terms of his moral ground.

Alexander Fehling: It’s totally OK because the truth lies somewhere
in between, somewhere in the gray. There is always also a tendency to simplify
these things. Look at Germany many, many years later dealing with the GDR. When
I talk to people in America they think that the GDR was like a dark place where
everybody suffered for years and years and nobody was free. That’s not true at
all and I don’t want to justify this political system at all – I was eight when The
Wall came down and I was born in East Germany – but sometimes statements like
what the American says tell you more about how the person that says it doesn’t
really know what he is talking about.

Aguilar: As you mentioned, no one can get in
a high horse and morally judge these people thinking we would do be any
different, but do you hope that, like many characters in the film, that people will start
questioning more about what they think is the absolute truth.

Giulio Ricciarelli: All these characters, like the secretary or
Haller, they are also mirrors of the importance of this trial. At the beginning
Haller belittles the whole thing by saying, “Oh everybody had camps.”
He says all the things Germans said at that time, but then he changes through
Johann’s efforts to have this trial and deal with it. Of course, with this kind
of film you have the central theme and you try to make every character a
variation of that theme. There is also the young girl who helps Johann. She
gets a black eye and she loses her job. Also Fischer, he is sort of like a
German FBI guy, who helps him and also loses his job. His career is ruined. I
wanted them to have an interaction with the main character and contribute to
the theme of the film. 

Aguilar: You also chose not to show the
actual trial at all. Of course that’s the important goal, but it seems to me
that the film is really about how these characters get there. There is also no flashbacks or images that show what actually happened in Auschwitz.

Giulio Ricciarelli: Maybe
there will be a movie about the trial, but I personally felt the most important
part was actually how was the atmosphere in Germany at the time and how
difficult was it to make the trial happen. If you decide to focus on the trial,
then basically that’s your movie: the trial. That would be your movie and maybe
at the beginning you can have a title card explaining that at the end of the
50s Germans didn’t know about the Holocaust till the trial took place.
Explaining it that way is not the same because people would not feel it, so to
us that was the most important thing. Secondly, as a filmmaker I would not want
to put an actor in a costume and have him act like he is a survivor and telling
them, “OK now you look like this and now you say this.” Audiences are
sophisticated, you probably have seen 50 films about the Holocaust including
documentaries, and so you have all the images in your mind. If I show you
somebody pretending you can always tell that’s an actor playing a part. You
would never feel that person is a survivor and I didn’t want to recreate the atrocities.

Alexander Fehling: I think it’s not only about the audience, but
also about the people who really experienced it. I think out of respect and out
of this unbelievable dimension no one should fake it or pretend to be a

Giulio Ricciarelli: Claude Lanzmann, who directed “Shoah” in
the 80s, was very clear, “You cannot show it. It cannot be shown.” That’s what he said referring to showing the actual atrocities. That’s why he went and interviewed the survivors.  

Alexander Fehling:  You’d
simplify it. If you show it you violate these people again.

Aguilar: When Johann interviews the survivors
in the film we never hear their stories either. There is music in a montage
that really focuses on the appalled reactions of those who didn’t know. That’s
a compelling approach. 

Alexander Fehling: Most
people who write about the film always mention this particular sequence.

Giulio Ricciarelli: Yes, and I always say that I’m happy as a
filmmaker that people like it, but basically all we did was allow the film to
step back at that moment and let the audience feel what they feel and it gives
just enough. You see their faces and you hear the music, which is a very simple
song from a Synagogue. It’s not a big musical score. It’s very simple. Johann’s
and the secretary’s reactions are vey powerful. People bring their own
Holocaust stories or ideas into this moment.

We fill in the gap with we’ve learned in books or seen in other films.

Giulio Ricciarelli: Exactly! This would be the moment where we
could have had a flashback, but the audience would think, “OK, how will
they show this to us?” It would not be emotional, but in this scene, since
you see them and you have all this knowledge, you bring it into the film. I felt
the same way about showing the trial, which of course we didn’t do, 

Another interesting choice you make is to give Johann a sort of token villain to
pursue, the infamous Mengele. Why was this important?

Giulio Ricciarelli: For his emotional journey the obsession with
Mengele is a mistake once he realizes how big this is. He fixates on Mengele
because he is pure evil. Hating pure evil is easy, but the horrible thing about
the trial is that you face what so-called “normal people” did.
Psychologically that’s much more difficult to see because there have been evil
people in history and you can hate them, but to realize that a baker who gives
a lollipop to a girl is somebody who could kill thousands or that other people who
were “normal” also did that and have now reintegrated into society,
that’s actually the big step. To confront that is much harder. Of course, it’s
right to hunt for Mengele, but Fritz makes it very clear in the dialogue that
this obsession is not everything. When Johann says, “Mengele is
Auschwitz,” Fritz says, “No, those who participated and who didn’t
say no, they are Auschwitz.” That’s a big philosophical debate. Mengele is
as we’d say in Germany “a path of wood,” it’s a wrong path. His
obsession with Mangele is leading him into a wrong path. That’s not his job,
his job is to make the trial happen and to put “normal people” on

Alexander Fehling: I read a lot about
Germany at the time, Fritz’ biography, about what happened during these trials,
what they achieved, and about the obstacles against making them happen. When Giulio
was writing the script he was working with historians that I also met. Johann,
the character I play, is a composite of three prosecutors. I also met one of
these prosecutors who is still around. He is 87 years old. I had the great
fortune of talking to him as well. There were also audio files from these
trials, which amount to more than 400 hours. I listened to some of these. 

Aguilar: I know you were born in Italy,
what’s your relationship with Germany and was it a big surprises to find out “Labyrinth of Lies” is
representing Germany at the Oscars?

Giulio Ricciarelli: My
mother was German and I grew up in Germany.

Alexander Fehling: That doesn’t give you the right to make this
film! [Laughs].

Giulio Ricciarelli: Yes! [Laughs]. When
we started we knew we had a good story and it’s my feature debut, so
now everything else is a bonus. What we all really wanted was for
the audience to have a really deep experience with this film. I didn’t think
about festivals, critics, awards or nominations, so everything that’s happening now as the film travels the
world feels like a gift. 

“Labyrinth of Lies” is now playing in select cities via Sony Pictures Classics. International sales by Beta: 

Argentina – CDI Films,
Australia – Madman,  Benelux – Lumière, Brazil
– Mares Filmes, Canada, Métropole, Mongrel Media, France, Universcine, Sophie,
Germany – Universal, Israel – Nachshon, Italy – Good Films, Japan – At Entertainment,
Poland – Aurora Films, Portugal – Films4you, Spain – DeA Planeta, Switzerland –
Universal, Taiwan – Swallow Wings, Turkey – Fabula, U.S. – Sony Pictures

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,