- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The ongoing lesson of the Holocaust has been “never forget.” But what of those who, in the midst of German reconstruction following WWII, found themselves suddenly face to face with the horrors of what the Nazis had done?

The new film “Labyrinth of Lies,” opening Friday in the District, tells the true tale of prosecutor Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), who seeks to try former Nazis who not only carried out the atrocities against Europe’s Jews and humanity, but also abetted in covering up their sins.

“My first reaction was I didn’t believe it. I said this can’t be true, this story,” director and co-writer Giulio Ricciarelli, an Italian filmmaker who grew up in Germany, told The Washington Times. He said that the more he discussed the movie idea with co-writer Elisabeth Bartel, he found it was a story of post-war German history that was simply left untold — or told incompletely to the schoolchildren of his generation.

“The truth is that, for almost 18 years, Germany tried to sweep it under the rug and denied it,” he said. “It was not talked about. And there was a new generation growing up in an atmosphere of silence that had no idea.”

“Labyrinth of Lies” stars Alexander Fehling (“Inglorious Basterds”) as young attorney Johann Radmann, working for Bauer in the 1950s. Routine cases lead Radmann into an intricately woven web of deception and obfuscation concerning not only what the Nazis did to the Jews, but the perhaps far more nauseating fact that many former Nazis now lived ordinary lives as his own neighbors.

Even more disturbing for Radmann is the question of whether his own father, absent for years at the time of the film’s beginning, was a member of the party.

“Someone asks him, ‘Do you want every child to ask if his father was a murderer?’” Mr. Ricciarelli said. “And [Radmann] says, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I want.’ [But] then once he’s confronted with [his own family history], he goes into denial just like everyone else. His father is his idol, and it basically breaks him.”

Mr. Ricciarelli said it was important that his hero not come at the case from a moral high ground, but rather walk a journey to humility due to the information about his father he uncovers.

Additionally, many characters of the film try to excuse their wartime behavior by saying they didn’t know better or were too young to understand what was happening. A key point of the movie, Mr. Ricciarelli said, is that is is very easy to approach the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust as an outsider and believe that one would not have taken part in the atrocities. But Mr. Ricciarelli has several prominent characters in his film face the burning question of what they might have done had they served as guards at Auschwitz or any of the Nazis notorious death camps.

The writer/director says that one myth postwar Germans propagated, but was later proven false, is that if soldiers did not follow orders, they were summarily executed by Nazi commanders.

“Historians are pretty clear that if you were at Auschwitz, you didn’t get drafted into the SS, that’s something you signed up for,” Mr. Ricciarelli said. “Second, if you were there and you said ‘listen, I don’t want to do this,’ you were sent to [another assignment], but you had a chance to get out [of mass killings].

“And that’s … a new concept that was introduced not just for Germany, but I think for all of humanity, that there is individual responsibility no matter what. So they can’t just say, ‘Oh, there was a general order to kill.’”

Such a notion flies in the face of the defense of “just following orders” that was previously explored in films like “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

Furthermore, Mr. Ricciarelli said, is that trying former Nazis needed to be about reckoning, not vengeance.

“It was about educating the young Germans about what had happened out of a very deep sense of responsibility — a very humanistic approach,” he said. “[Bauer] said it was about Germans sitting trial over Germans so that everybody would see what had happened. He says [in the film], ‘If you think it’s about who’s guilty, half-guilty or not guilty, you don’t understand what this is about.’”

Mr. Ricciarelli maintains that too often, Holocaust dramas cast those dark times as “a few very bad men and a very confused population.” Just as equally incorrect, he said, is the notion that all Germans were sympathetic to the Nazis and their hatred of Jews.

“I was talking to a journalist, a Polish Jew who came [to America after the war], and she told me horrible stories of survival,” Mr. Ricciarelli said, “but she also told me how a German solider saved her” and told her where to hide. “So even in the midst of horror, you can have someone have a moment of humanity. And someone who is very human can [also] have a moment of cruelty.”

At one point in the film, Radmann and another character travel, at the behest of some German Holocaust survivors, to Auschwitz to say the Kaddish, a Hebrew prayer praising God in the midst of agony. It’s a key turning point for Radmann in his quest for righteousness.

Mr. Ricciarelli is hopeful that continued education about the Holocaust and other genocides can keep such horrors from returning their evils upon the earth. At the same time, he believes that there may in fact be some innate aspect of humanity that is simply prone to such destructiveness.

“Civilization is thin,” he says rather bluntly.

Even with many European countries dealing with new waves of xenophobia as Middle Eastern refugees, fleeing ongoing sectarian violence and the terrors of the Islamic State, Mr. Riccarelli notes that his adopted country has “learned its lesson” from its past.

“As soon as you compare anything to the Holocaust you’re actually removed from office,” he said of German politicians.

“I think it’s [praiseworthy] that Germany is stepping forward and opening its arms,” to the refugees, he said. “On the other hand, they closed the borders. I think it’s going to be the big challenge of the next few years.”

Mr. Ricciarelli says that making “Labyrinth of Lies” allowed him to explore the moral issues of when his own parents’ generation was young and coming to terms with what their countrymen had done.

“You have to fight for memory,” he said, “you have to fight for acknowledgment, you have to fight for your own history. And this, the work on this film, made me realize it even more.”

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