Lawrence Toppman

‘Labyrinth of Lies’ walks us through an ugly past

Alexander Fehling in “Labyrinth of Lies.”
Alexander Fehling in “Labyrinth of Lies.” TNS

The title of “Im Labyrinth des Schweigens,” Germany’s submission for this year’s foreign film Oscar, has been rendered as “Labyrinth of Lies” for the U.S. release.

It actually means “In the Labyrinth of Silence,” which gives a fairer idea of this drama set in Germany about 15 years after World War II. Nobody bothers to tell lies about the Nazis at that point; they’ve simply passed into history as an unfortunate anomaly in German culture.

“Auschwitz?” asks one man in his late 20s. “Wasn’t that a protective custody camp?” He’s Johann Radmann, a minor prosecutor in Frankfurt who specializes in traffic violations. He will spend five years finding out exactly what Auschwitz was, what happened there, and why it matters – however much people around him say it doesn’t – that criminals be brought to justice for what they did there.

The script, written by Elisabeth Bartel and director Giulio Ricciarelli (with a credit to “collaboration by Amelie Syberberg”), begins with a small incident in 1958.

A painter coming home from work accepts a light for his cigarette from a teacher standing inside the fence at an elementary school. The painter recognizes a guard who murdered prisoners at the Auschwitz death camp. He approaches a rabble-rousing journalist (André Szymanski), whose article about a killer at large interests no one at the prosecutor’s office except Radmann (Alexander Fehling of “Inglourious Basterds”).

Radmann’s cronies suggest he leave well enough alone. Sure, plenty of Nazis blended back into German society after the war. A few big fish – Eichmann, Mengele and others – escaped to South America, where only the Israelis hunt them. One cannot, after all, bring tens of thousands of people to court more than a decade after their alleged crimes!

Yet Radmann doggedly plows through files and victims’ memories. He’s abetted by the attorney general (Gert Voss), who once served a year in a camp himself, and encouraged by a new lady friend (Friederike Becht), whose father was a war hero on the Russian front.

Or was he? Radmann learns to his dismay that most German adults joined the Nazi Party during the 1930s and ’40s, whether from patriotic zeal, sadistic enjoyment of its policies or self-preservation. Digging too deeply will expose the shame of millions who now take their hard-won respectability for granted.

Bartel and Ricciarelli, who make remarkable debuts as writer and director of a feature film, tell a story that will resonate in any country that hasn’t come to grips with a poisonous past.

We respect Germany today as a nation that acknowledges its ugly history and continues to teach kids about it, something many regions and lands – the Southern United States, for example – have failed to do. But that wasn’t always so, and “Labyrinth of Lies” shows how hard those first steps away from self-denial can be.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Labyrinth of Lies’


Cast: Alexander Fehling, Friederike Becht, André Szymanski.

Director: Giulio Ricciarelli.

Length: 124 minutes.

Rating: R (one scene of sexuality).