Can a film be too morally robust for its own good?
There’s no denying the well-earned German guilt complex at the center of “Labyrinth of Lies,” a saga of that country’s state of denial following World War II. But, after a while, the film’s overcooked self-flagellations begin to dilute the power of its intended message.
It’s 1958 and Germany is again thriving following its defeat. An artist (Johannes Krisch) is walking past an elementary school in Frankfurt when he has a chance encounter with one of the teachers there, and he recognizes the man as a former officer at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in which he almost perished.
He tells a close friend, a crusading journalist named Thomas Gnielka (Andre Szymanski), who then approaches the local prosecutor’s office. This man was at Auschwitz, he helped murder thousands of people, he should be arrested.
People stare back at him blankly. Auschwitz? What’s Auschwitz? No one knows where it is or what went on there. Germany is happy and healthy again. Why drag up this old business?
Such was the delusion of the times. But one young prosecutor, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), a newbie assigned to traffic violations, becomes intrigued. He does some research — although local libraries have hardly anything on the subject — and eventually asks the attorney general (Gert Voss) to look into the matter. The attorney general, going against the common wisdom, promptly puts Radmann in charge of an investigation.
Radmann starts bringing in people who were held in Auschwitz to hear their stories. And, not surprisingly, he is soon aghast. The film’s most powerful moment may be when Radmann’s dowdy secretary (Hansi Jochmann) realizes the truth while taking notes during the interviews: Her people did this?
And so Radmann’s quest is set. The problem is, everyone wants to forget the Nazis at the same time there are Nazis everywhere, from humble bakers to corporate power players.
Radmann becomes so obsessed with Nazis, guilty of war crimes or not, that he and the film lose a bit of focus. Toss in a love affair that also ends up Nazi-centric and what should have been a fairly direct look at a culture hiding from itself becomes an overdone, angst-everywhere exercise.
‘Labyrinth of Lies’
Rated R for a scene of sexuality
Running time: 124 minutes