German film reveals a Labyrinth of postwar lies

It’s become an axiom of politics that the cover-up is always worse than the crime. Germany’s amnesia, ignorance and denial in the 1950s is the rare exception, a deeply disturbing phenomenon but not as terrible as the Holocaust itself.

The riveting German drama “Labyrinth of Lies,” opening Oct. 9 in the Bay Area, is the directorial debut of Italian German actor and producer Giulio Ricciarelli, who explores the orchestrated silence of that period through the events and individual perseverance that led to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of 1963-65.

Idealistic prosecutor Johann Radmann (a composite of three young lawyers who worked for prosecutor-general Fritz Bauer) learns from a journalist that a former Nazi is employed as a schoolteacher. This minor case launches him on a wider, controversial investigation that eventually makes Auschwitz, then unknown to most Germans (including Radmann, played by Alexander Fehling), a household word.

Alexander Fehling in “Labyrinth of Lies” photo/sony pictures classics

“For a German film about this period that also talks about the Holocaust, we didn’t want to invent historical facts,” Ricciarelli says in a phone interview from New York. “What we invented was an emotional journey. Radmann is very black and white and he knows what’s right and what’s wrong, and it’s his journey to humility while he confronts what actually happened in his country. In the end, he’s a changed man.”

The 50-year-old Ricciarelli was born in Milan and edcated in Germany, where he learned about the Holocaust in school. But he never heard about the formidable Bauer (played by the imposing Gert Voss) and the Auschwitz trial.

“The story was basically forgotten in Germany,” Ricciarelli relates. “To me that is so amazing, because the Auschwitz trial and the Eichmann trial [in Israel] were the turning point for the German people to look at what had happened, and to deal with it.”

“Labyrinth of Lies” unfolds as an a mystery investigation via a classical structure and clever plotting, but it presented a challenge and a paradox for its novice director and co-writer. The Nazi period and the Holocaust are widely known and images of the genocide are pervasive today, but that wasn’t the case in Germany in the late ’50s.

“It’s not a film about Auschwitz, but you have to have a feeling of the devastation for the drama to work,” Ricciarelli explains. “We rely on what’s already in the soul and imagination of the audience. ”

While viewers want to be touched and moved by a film, Ricciarelli is loathe to manipulate them when the material is as important — and loaded — as it is in “Labyrinth of Lies.” He cites one of the more emotional scenes, of a survivor recounting, “And then they told me” what Mengele did to his children.

“You don’t have a direct testimony, but you have the drama of a man who imagines everything he hears having happened to his children,” Ricciarelli says. “This is very much the concept of the film.”

The director participated in several Q&As when the film opened in Germany last fall to positive reviews, and was surprised how the theme of dealing with the past, and the question of what one’s parents did, are still alive in many families. He recalls one woman confessing, “My grandfather left a box, and it’s locked, and we are all afraid to open the box because we don’t want to know what Grandfather did during the war.”

“Labyrinth of Lies” is Germany’s submission for the 2016 Academy Award for best foreign language film.

“Labyrinth of Lies”
opens Friday, Oct. 9 at the Clay in San Francisco, Albany Twin in Albany, Century 16 in Pleasant Hill, CinéArts @ Palo Alto Square and Camera 3 in San Jose. In German with English subtitles. (109 minutes, rated R for a scene of sexuality)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.