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A monster’s a monster, regardless of size.
‘Twould be an outrage to imply otherwise.
A villain’s a villain; of that, there’s no doubt.
Do we know all villains worth knowing about?

A murderer’s evil, without an exception,
And those who assisted his crime or deception
And those who stood by to let one such go free
Are all as blameworthy as he. Disagree?

But what if you stood there and let him go by,
In fear that a critic would be next to die?
‘Tis no less wrong, is it, to stifle your tongue,
But are you still evil like those you’re among?

While evil is evil, as most should agree,
A sinner can vary by deed and degree.
Discerning a villain is right and essential,
But so is the fact we all have the potential.

MPAA rating: R (for descriptions of violence and a brief bedroom scene; could easily be PG-13 with the slightest editing)

I’ve only seen three German films (3½ if I count Joyeux Noel), but Labyrinth of Lies is easily the best. Germany’s unnominated submission to the Academy Awards intrigued me with the trailer alone, and the film delivered exactly what I hoped for, an investigative new look at the semi-known stories of Auschwitz and Germany’s response to it in the years after World War II.

It’s taken for granted nowadays that most people have heard of Auschwitz and the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis, but early in Labyrinth of Lies, journalist Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski) asks several passersby if they’d ever heard of Auschwitz. Everyone answers “No.” The year is 1958, and within one generation, the atrocities of Nazi Germany had been nearly erased where they most needed to be remembered. Nuremberg tried the Nazi leadership, but the thousands of Nazi Party members didn’t just disappear; they blended back into the populace, never telling their children what they had done. While Jewish survivors tried to forget the horrors they endured, everyone else just ignored them.

Unjust is a mild descriptor for such a situation, and when injustice runs rampant, thankfully someone steps forward for what’s right. While he seems to be a composite of several real-life figures, that someone is Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), a lawyer who tends to see every crime as black or white, not even yielding to overlook a minor traffic violation. Young and ambitious, he too has no idea of the Nazis’ crimes, and when his eyes are opened, he makes it his duty to bring justice to the victims. With support from his boss Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss, who died before the film’s release), he seeks out buried records, reluctant witnesses, and slippery targets – a teacher, a businessman, a baker –, determined that their own country try them for war crimes. He eventually sets his sights on Auschwitz’s monstrous doctor Josef Mengele, who was not caught after the war and escaped into hiding. As Radmann, Fehling is outstanding and often reminded me of a less baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio; though German, he has at least appeared in Inglourious Basterds and Homeland, but he’s such a good actor that I hope he appears in more English-language roles.

Radmann is a dogged crusader for truth, even to the point of obsession, and the more lies he uncovers, the more his faith in humanity is shattered. He looks at pictures of Mengele and comments at how normal he looks. How could he have done such nightmarish deeds? How could an entire country yield to such hate and cruelty? The deeper he digs, the more blame he finds for everyone. Aside from the victims, no one was entirely guiltless, but does that mean everyone was a monster? Does remembering the bad mean disregarding the good, or vice versa?

Labyrinth of Lies deals with its subject frankly but unobtrusively. Despite the R rating, little is seen of the actual concentration camp crimes, and I prefer that, to be honest. I am fully aware of how barbaric the Nazis were, but I don’t want to see it recreated onscreen. That’s why I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to watch Schindler’s List, even though I realize I’m perpetuating to some extent the mindset of many Germans in Labyrinth of Lies, not wanting to see evil for what it was. This film deals with the horrific facts in a believably restrained manner that still underscores how they must never be forgotten. It’s encouraging that such a film came out of Germany itself, indicating the nation’s resolve to remember. Labyrinth of Lies is in German, but even haters of subtitles should give this engrossing historical drama a chance. I’m glad I did.

Best line: (Bauer) “Why have you come back?”   (Radmann) “Because the only response to Auschwitz is to do the right thing yourself.”


Rank: List-Worthy


© 2016 S. G. Liput

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