Powerful and haunting, Labyrinth of Lies is an eye-opening story about the importance of seeking the truth – even when it’s complicated, ugly, and buried beneath years of secrecy and deceit.
Set in 1958, the film explores the events which led to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which saw former Nazis tried by the German government for crimes against humanity. Faced with a war-weary nation suppressing its Holocaust guilt with a state of willful amnesia, the film centers on a handful of brave prosecutors and journalists who dedicated themselves to an uncompromising and relentless search for the truth and justice in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Labyrinth of Lies was Germany’s submission for the Academy Awards, and is one of the most important and revelatory films of the year.
I spoke to the film’s director, Giulio Ricciarelli, ahead of its New Zealand release on the 23rd of June.
Giulio, Labyrinth of Lies was your first feature film. Why this story at this point in time?
This was my first film and I was looking for a strong story, as I had realized that when you make your first feature you have to have a compelling story otherwise it will not get made. When Elisabeth Bartles, who came to me through my producers, told me about this trial I was stunned. I didn’t know about the Auschwitz trial. I didn’t know about Fritz Bauer, the prosecutor-general who led the trial. For me that was amazing. I found that there was this whole period in German history that I didn’t know anything about. So that got me hooked, and then we started working on the script and it the rest is history.
And you must be pleased that audiences have connected so strongly with your film? How do you hope that New Zealand audience will react – what should they take away from it?
There is a very clear human message to the film, the underlying universal theme of confronting the past, and of finding a personal truth, and my experience is that people respond to it, and I’m very grateful for that. I hope that New Zealand audiences will feel the same way, and I’m excited that they will be able to see my film.
How can telling these stories, how can this film, make a difference?
Well, this is an interesting question, and I’ve thought about it a lot. My feeling is that culture is everything. Human evolution is done through culture and the many great things that we have today like democracy or freedom of speech or the sanctity of human life – are cultural achievements first before they are laws and they are implemented. I think that culture is like a tapestry and my film is part of this tapestry. And who knows, maybe somebody will see it and be inspired by it and make another film in 20 years that will change the whole world. And I would have been a part of that. Or maybe there is something more personal – everyone takes something different away form a film, and maybe through film there is an opportunity for people to develop civil courage. Or maybe it’s just being moved by something. And that is an experience also.
Your film begins with a great scene – an artist being offered a light by a teacher – who then recognizes him as a former Nazi. Can you talk to me about the symbolism of that and how it frames the narrative of the film?
The first scene is basically a symbol for the theme of the film. You have Germany in the midst of economic miracle, you have a country which has moved on from the war, and you have these horrible perpetrators of the crimes of Nazi Germany living their lives, and even holding positions of power and influence, this was something that actually happened. Victims of the concentration camps would meet their oppressors in the street, in the pharmacy, in the bank – that was something that was part of the German culture at the time. There’s also the idea that the Nazi was a teacher – you have these people teaching children, and there is something so inherently wrong in that. So the first scene is very peaceful, very harmonious. You have children laughing and playing in a schoolyard – a symbol that the world is okay – and then suddenly this reality is shattered, you realize that there is this underlying huge horror there, and that is something I hope sets off the mood for the rest of the film.
And how did being involved in the film shape your own perspective of Auschwitz and of World War II?
Interestingly when I was eight years old I was in school, someone brought in a pack of cards from the camp. I had never heard of Auschwitz before – I was eight – and I was deeply shocked. Deeply moved. I could not understand it. It is something that never left me – I cannot understand how it could happen. You cannot understand how a country, how people, could do this to each other. Could do this to their neighbours. Could do this to their friends.
And I realized that in making this film, and I’ve never thought about it this way, but I think the Second World War and the Holocaust were the defining trauma that all of culture still wrestles with. Adorno the German philosopher wrote that: “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz”. Whereas I am a filmmaker and I made a movie about it, so I am of a different opinion, but I think that the quote sums up the feeling very well, and if you look at French existentialism, that is of course a very influential statement. It’s like a lot of our culture still is really trying to come to grips with it. And if you look at the hope that humanity had before the two World Wars, there was actually a kind of vision of the future where everybody would be free and in a great brotherhood, and then after the holocaust happened – this hope was shattered.
The Auschwitz story is so familiar now to many of us, especially the German people. How difficult was it to make the ‘familiar unfamiliar’ in your film ?
That was a big task because when you look at it, even with the stories of the Holocaust, this particular period was unknown. So if you’d asked me before I had done the film I would have said the German period of acknowledgment and reconciliation happened just after the war. And that was the difficulty – you summed it up very well. You’re talking about the biggest crime in history and you have to make a movie about what everybody doesn’t know about it. Well, the audience of course does know a lot and the key to this I think was to really take time in the exposition.
To have this main character, Johann Radmann, be this young man, who you are then able to look at things through his eyes, his context. We knew we needed to take the audience by the hand and say, come back into the 60’s, come back into a time where Auschwitz was not a synonym for horror, where it’s instead just this little place in Poland. That was a big task and I think it works because we took time to build that context. Today in a lot of movies they jump right in – they basically start right in the middle of the story – and we could not do that, we needed to set it up and let it build.
How would you characterize your main character, the young public prosecutor Johann Radmann?
He really is an interesting character, played amazingly by Alexander Fehling. In a film you either have outward drama or inner drama, and in our film the dramatic arc is the character’s inner journey. He starts out very black and white, he’s very smart but very idealistic, and has a very ridged moral compass. He reminds me of me when I was that age. The film is basically his journey to humility, to understanding, and to gaining the right state of mind to do this trial – to prosecute these people – and in the end he basically loses everything – all his convictions, his certainty, but he still knows from somewhere deep inside him that it’s still the right thing to do. In the end he’s humble. The case isn’t about him, it’s about the victims – and that is our film. That is our arc.