Labyrinth of Lies (Im Labyrinth des Shweigens) is a pre-courtroom drama. It’s about all the preparation that went into a major trial of Nazi war criminals, which can have just as much drama as the actual prosecution. In theory, at least. Labyrinth of Lies is good enough at conveying the story but drags on when it tries to become more of a film.
Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) is the German prosecutor who leads the case against Auschwitz war criminals in late ‘50s Germany. If you can imagine, it was far enough after World War II that people weren’t talking about Nazis anymore and would just as soon forget them.
If this were an American movie, I could imagine Matthew McConaughey playing Radmann, a good looking but scrappy underdog fighting the establishment. Fehling is that type, and kind of where McConaughey was at the point he made A Time to Kill and Amistad. The restrictions of the case give him a system to work within and around. For example, the statute of limitations has run out on all crimes except murder, so he can’t just get them for nonfatal abuse.
Testimony of survivors is handled well. A few incidents are recounted sporadically but we don’t hear the detailed testimony. Instead we see a secretary emerge from the deposition traumatized by what she’s heard. Certainly the audience has seen enough movies and learned enough history in school that we know what sort of atrocities the Nazis committed without having to repeat them. However the film also successfully illustrates a Germany where the youth hadn’t even heard of Auschwitz. It’s as if the millennials of today were ignorant of significant history of the 90s.
The process of sifting through disorganized files and trying to extradite criminals like Mengele are interesting. You get the sense that the case drags on, but there’s also a lot of downtime. I found myself zoning out and forgetting to read the subtitles sometimes. I snapped back quickly and remembered oh yeah, it’s not in English so I have a little extra work to do. But a good legal thriller should keep me engrossed.
Even more distracting are the personal relationships of Radmann included to humanize the legal history. Radmann is dating a seamstress, Marlene (Friederike Becht) and she is sometimes his muse for ideas, and sometimes the one to confront him for his obsession. When a torn sleeve becomes a blatant metaphor for their relationship, come on!
Radmann’s obsession does make him antisocial. He won’t help anyone by lashing out against everyone. He’s struggling with the big question: What’s an appropriate punishment for something as unconscionable as The Holocaust? The resolution to his conflict offers something more constructive than simple punishment.
Labyrinth of Lies is a competent portrayal of a middle period in history between the war and the actual accountability for war crimes. It’s worth telling, with good performances and period details. The actual legal story could be tightened up and drop some extraneous additions, but it’s still there within this structure.