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Labyrinth of Lies

Giulio Ricciarelli’s docudrama looks at how Germany was forced to confront its Nazi past through the courts

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Referring to thousands of German soldiers who worked in the death camps during World War II, a frustrated investigator says: “They came home, hung up their uniforms and carried on as if nothing had happened.” 

Giulio Ricciarelli’s docudrama examines what happens when, in 1958, the Frankfurt Public Prosecutors Office decides to identify and try for murder “ordinary” Germans who worked at Auschwitz. The statute of limitations has run out for any crimes other than murder, so the office must also find surviving witnesses. The film creates a composite character, the handsome young Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), whom it unfortunately saddles with a couple of formulaic subplots.

But most of Labyrinth is a solid procedural, as one case leads to another, and various obfuscations are overcome. (Radmann gets unintended help from the Nazis, who kept meticulous records, many of which survived the war: “These idiots wrote everything down.”)

But it is also a chilling indictment of how quickly and easily the past can be buried, even if complicity requires the cooperation of an entire nation. Radmann is initially driven by the basic (if naïve) principles of justice — one man should account for one victim. But as the full scope of the cover-up unfolds, his mission becomes to force Germany to abandon the “lies and silence,” to excise the wound. 

It all leads to an astonishing trial in 1963, in which post-war Germany put its own soldiers on trial. It might seem like a long-ago footnote to a shameful history we know all too well these days, but Labyrinth also offers some space to reflect on current issues. A democratically elected government and its actions are accountable to its people, but only if its citizens demand it, and not if they look away.


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