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The Holocaust as Legal Procedural in Labyrinth of Lies 

click to enlarge Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann.

Heike Ullrich/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann.

The biggest problem with Labyrinth of Lies, the fictionalized account of the behind-the-scenes legal events leading up to the 1963 trial of former Auschwitz guards, is that it's earnest, well-intentioned and even polite to a fault. You can probably guess exactly where Labyrinth leads even if you're only slightly familiar with the historical background, but you've probably never seen the subject treated quite so bloodlessly.

The film, which is Germany's official selection for the Academy Awards this year, follows Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), a young prosecuting attorney in Frankfurt who believes crusading journalist Thomas Gnielka's (André Szymanski) claim that a local schoolteacher was a guard at Auschwitz. Radmann faces the ridicule of his coworkers, but after hanging out with the journalist's bohemian friends and gradually comes to the conclusion that thousands of ex-Nazis are living freely in post-war Germany.

click to enlarge Alexander Fehling and Friederike Becht in Labyrinth of Lies. - HEIKE ULLRICH/COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Heike Ullrich/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
  • Alexander Fehling and Friederike Becht in Labyrinth of Lies.

And although Radmann is successful in building cases and uncovering past crimes, the film maintains a cautious arms-length distance from the horrors of the past. Director Giulio Ricciarelli (who also co-wrote the film) offers post-war period flavor and lots of images of institutional architecture, index cards and wrinkled files, but the actual discussion of events within the camp is kept to a minimum: There are no flashbacks, no archival footage, just snippets of Radmann's interviews. It's enough to give us a sense of what the Nazis did without ever taking a close look at it.

As mild as it is, Labyrinth of Lies could easily have been an innocuous period piece, but it ultimately lacks the coherence to work even as a simple history lesson. Having already made the error of making the fictional Radmann's story — his eventual success in winning over colleagues — more prominent than the material he uncovers, the film goes seriously out of control near the end when the disillusioned hero briefly abandons his mission in a contrived series of scenes that pull the film off-course, only to return to his senses just in time to wrap things up neatly in the final fifteen minutes.

Labyrinth of Lies is not the first film in which post-war Europeans uncover and confront the crimes of the Nazi era, but it's the first one I can think of that treats the subject so gingerly and half-heartedly. Is it possible that the Holocaust, once regarded as the darkest event in a frequently dark and violent century, has become little more than a plot point dragged into films as a signifier of a hero's moral compass? Labyrinth of Lies would have us believe that it lifts a curtain on an entire post-war society, but it lacks the courage to confront its villains, turning the horrors of Auschwitz into a historical MacGuffin.

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September 23, 2020

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