Here's a hair-raising assignment: Imagine you're tasked with capturing the social and psychological complexities of a nation's crackup within the framework of popular moviemaking. What if Gone With the Wind tried, in its swooning romance, to explicate Scarlett O'Hara's slow-to-dawn realization of the hopeless immorality of the world she has lost?
Enter Giulio Ricciarelli's Labyrinth of Lies, a daylit Teutonic Chinatown-lite. Its detective-like hero, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), is a zealous West German prosecutor who in 1958 gets a tip that maybe he ought to look into this place called Auschwitz. “Wasn't it a protective-custody camp?” Radmann asks. But he digs in, and soon he's shocked to turn up evidence of crimes that went unpunished at Nuremberg — crimes that, today, we might wish were still unimaginable.
The film is imperfect, but it's valuable from that premise alone: In our culture of never forget, one thing often forgotten is how slow the Germans and the world were to acknowledge the scale of Hitler's systematic extermination of Jews. Before we could vow not to let genocide happen again, crusading spirits like Radmann had to get the world to admit there had been one.
To that end, in fleet and engaging scenes, Radmann and his small team elect to start prosecuting German civilians who'd served at Auschwitz a decade earlier, seemingly regular people who have mostly faded back into everyday life. Due to Germany's statute of limitations, the prosecutors must be able to link the men they want to charge with documented murders — simply having served at the camps or in the SS is not enough. That means delving into Nazi records and conducting many interviews with survivors. In a nice, underplayed moment, the woman taking dictation from the first witness breaks down as soon as her task is complete.
That's a lot of ideas to crush down into a detective tale, and at times Labyrinth of Lies lists toward thriller silliness. The story has been mapped onto the sturdy, familiar template of most movies about dogged reporters and gumshoes digging for truths, so you'll often know how scenes will end as soon as they've begun. Steel yourself for dialogue ripped right from paperback thrillers: “This is a labyrinth. Don't lose yourself in it.” “This country wants sugarcoating — it doesn't want the truth!” Some naturalism must be lost in translation, so it's unfair to hold the screenwriters — Ricciarelli and Elisabeth Bartel — accountable for this beaut of an anachronism, spoken by one of the powerful men trying to shut down Radmann's investigation: “It's a nonstarter!”
That same ripeness infects the visuals. To emphasize the oddity of what it might feel like to attempt to arrest everyday citizens a decade after the fact for crimes demanded, encouraged and sanctioned by the previous government, Ricciarelli shows us the first suspect Radmann approaches, a baker, quite cheerily bestowing a lolly upon a moppet. And a pair of dream sequences are comically awful, especially the one where we glimpse strobing flashes of Radmann's face with eyes and ears sewn up — the gravity of the Final Solution plays in his subconscious as a Nine Inch Nails video.
But that's the project here: reducing unspeakable trauma to pop formula. There's a vague romance that opens with a meet-cute (with Friederike Becht) and withers with the driven hero's blinkered neglect; there's a naïf-ish ideologue mocked by his colleagues and, later, the usual scenes of that ideologue dressed down by superiors for violations of protocol.
Formula becomes formula for a reason, though. When attended to with care, it works, and, eventually, Labyrinth of Lies starts cooking. It's best when Ricciarelli slows down his investigative narrative and lets his cast suggest the enormity of what's happening. Toward the end it's Radmann who breaks down. In a painful suite of scenes, the young prosecutor struggles to bear the weight of what he's revealing: that so many of his countrymen just a few years older than him participated in these atrocities. He's stoic, at first, when a superior asks, “Do you want every young man in this country to wonder whether his father was a murderer?” But when he begins to wonder about his own father's past, or his fiancée's father's, our hero balks — why is it his responsibility to lay bare a nation's monstrous secret?
It's to the film's credit that truth-telling here looks as hard as it does noble, and that the Holocaust is not treated just as a suspense story's Macguffin. Since we all know the history Radmann is investigating, and since Germany has long reckoned publicly with its past, there's not much suspense about the outcome: He'll expose the wound to start the efforts to heal it.
Radmann is a composite character, based on several real prosecutors. Their Auschwitz trial revealed to the public the horrors of the camps, the factory-efficient murders of millions. This fictionalized Radmann reminds us of what courage that took — and at its best the film suggests that, perhaps even today, the comforts of narrative cliché might help us to comprehend.
LABYRINTH OF LIES | Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli | Sony Pictures Classics | Royal, Playhouse, Town Center