The first time I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., it was on a school day. And whole classes of teenagers filled the chilling exhibits — the halls of photos, prison clothes and uniforms, the railcar full of shoes, whose scent is among the most vivid memories anybody takes from the place.
And in the room where the barracks from a concentration camp were set up, I saw a couple of teenage boys picking at the wooden supports. Looking for a souvenir? A little wanton destruction of property on school time? Their classmates snickered until I barked at them. “What the HELL are you doing?”
It was all meaningless to them, just another boring field trip, just another chapter in history that they had no interest in learning or learning from.
So it comes as no great shock to hear, in the fine German drama “Labyrinth of Lies,” that Deutschland did its best to hide its recent past from the kids raised after World War II.
The unspeakable, the film suggests, became the nation’s open secret and open wound — ordinary men and women who did despicable things to unarmed civilians and POWs, “just soldiers” and “just following orders,” they would say. Not that anybody asked the butcher, the baker, the mayor or autoworker “What did you do in the war?” Nobody wanted to hear it. The kids? They just didn’t know.
One of those younger people is Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling, earnest and solid), a state’s attorney. His father went MIA on the Russian Front. It’s 1958 when the film opens. His mother is remarrying, but she reminds him to do his father proud each day when he heads off to work. He worships the law, so much so that a young woman who commits a minor offense shrieks “You stickler, you monster!” at him.
It sounds even more hateful in German (with English subtitles). But somehow, the hip and artsy young designer Marlene (a spunky/radiant Friederike Becht) becomes smitten with Johann.
A school teacher is recognized as a guard from Auschwitz by a survivor, and a tabloid journalist, Gnielka(André Szymanski), tries to get the man some justice, to interest the authorities. Radmann’s boss, his entire office, doesn’t want to hear it.
“Is there an actual victim?”
“Proof” is an eyewitness seeing this fellow or that one bayoneting a child, loading the gas canisters of Zyklon B into the gas chambers. Harder to come by than you think. More war criminals than victims survived.
Radmann, being curious and ambitious, digs around. The American military is safekeeping the records of German activities during the war, and the American officer in charge can’t figure out why Radmann wants to have a look.
“You were ALL Nazis.”
Gnielka schools Radmann that this isn’t far from the truth.
“They came home, hung up their uniforms and went on as if nothing happened.”
Only the attorney general, Fritz Bauer, gives Radmann free rein. Played by the late, great German actor Gert Voss, Bauer is a cagey figure whose motives we question. Is he letting “the kid” tackle this because be wants nothing to come of it, or because someone his age is untainted? What did HE do in the war?
And so the young lawyer and his journalist accomplice plunge into the labyrinth, hunting for proof this or that actual war vet committed this specific crime. Temptations are hurled Radmann’s way — from a private sector firm with connections that could get Marlene started in dress designing. Higher ups, and the Americans, are more concerned about the Cold War than criminals from the last one.
German police, from town to town, refuse to cooperate. Only the Israelis seem interested.
A big fish who keeps close ties to Germany, perhaps even returns for visits, emerges. Dr. Joseph Mengele? Just another guy Radmann has never heard of. He grows more distressed and more outraged, the deeper he digs.
“Labyrinth of Lies” is based on the real-life events surrounding a pivotal moment in (West) German history, a big 1960s trial that rounded up many of those who ran Auschwitz and the nation started coming to grips with its past. Watching the film unfold and the story drive toward that reckoning, you realize anew how important it is to remember this happened, the scale of it all, the barbarity.
And as an aside, you recall this German reckoning was one that the nearly-as-barbaric Japanese never pursued, given the cover of victimhood by Hiroshima and a rug to sweep their crimes against humanity under by MacArthur.
“Labyrinth” wanders into melodrama — of course Radmann, Marlene and others will find out about relatives, colleagues and higher-ups with unsavory pasts. And while the film mercifully stops short of the actual trial, it does meander a bit as it takes us into records, legal rabbit holes and oddly muted confrontations with the accused.
But it’s a fine film, and a surprising history lesson — not because the Germans don’t remember the Holocaust, but because we’re reminded that there was a time when they didn’t want to.
MPAA Rating:R for a scene of sexuality
Cast:André Szymanski, Alexander Fehling, Friederike Becht, Gert Voss
Credits: Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli, script by Elisabeth Bartel, Amelie Syberberg and Giulio Ricciarelli . A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 2:04