LABYRINTH OF LIES/ IM LABYRINTH DES SCHWEIGENS. Starring Alexander Fehling, Andre Szymanski, Friederike Becht, Johannes Krisch, Kurt Voss, Tim Williams. Directed by Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli. 124 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and sex scene).
The subject of the film is how German society, prospering in the 1950s under Chancellor Adenauer, could put behind it the experience of World War II, the experience of Hitler and the third Reich (which lasted comparatively few years instead of the predicted and hoped-for thousand).
The screenplay of the film suggests that many ordinary Germans, the German middle-class, had very little knowledge of Auschwitz and the concentration camps and of the horrors that were enacted there. The name of Auschwitz seemed quite unfamiliar to so many. A number of the authorities chose not to acknowledge Auschwitz let alone admit to the presence of the prisoners, their treatment, and the mass extermination.
The film features a young lawyer, ambitious, who by chance encounters a journalist challenging the legal authorities by bringing a survivor of Auschwitz to their offices. The chief inspector in Frankfurt throws the page of information into the rubbish bin – with the young man later quietly going to retrieve it, contacting the journalist, being brought into contact with the survivor, going through his locked case and unearthing some incriminating documents. The survivor himself is initially unwilling to collaborate, remembering the fate of his daughters and his inability to help them when they were separated from him and put into the charge of Dr Mengele and subjected to his barbaric experiments. The sequence where he explains his sadness and the tragedy of his girls and of his life, his compassion for his daughter-victims and his feeling towards the man who cruelly abused them, is one of the most moving moments of the film.
The lawyer gets the support of the Attorney General, himself a Jew who had been incarcerated in a concentration camp in 1933. He is encouraged to approach American authorities, the occupying force archives, to retrieve Auschwitz documents which, eventually he does, a truckload of them. He and his associate with the woman who served as a secretary in his office, spend a great deal of time and energy combing through the documents while he accosts some of those mentioned with the intention of arrest.
The powers that be put obstacles in his way at times and in no way is he supported.
The lawyer has a great admiration for his father, a lawyer who had handed onto his son the ideal of the search for truth. When he realises that his father, as all lawyers were expected to be during Hitler’s time, was a signed-up member of the party, he becomes disillusioned, especially as all his attempts to track down Dr Mengele during his secret visits to Germany from Argentina, are thwarted. There is also the complication that the German government is in contact with Mossad who are intent on bringing Eichmann and Mengele to justice but, at the time, prize the return of Eichmann to Israel for trial as more significant.
At the end of the film, with documents, including Commandant signatures on orders for gas and equipment for the camp, German methodical bookkeeping leading to incriminating papers, the audience is told that many of those responsible in Auschwitz were tried in the courts, most found guilty.
The film serves as a gripping investigation, uncovering of secrets, a mission for justice.
And the connection for Australia and the church? In watching the film, one could have substituted a number of times church for Germans, for failure of memory, unwillingness to remember, cover-up and allowing perpetrators to live free lives, untouched by their victims or the victims’ families. In terms of the church and sexual abuse, the parallel is very telling – and discomforting. The German title, has been translated for English-language distribution as Labyrinth of Lies but the German, Im Labyrinth des Scheigwens, even more tellingly, could be translated: in the labyrinths of the silences.
A film that is worth watching in itself and for appreciating something of German postwar history. but, as has been suggested, a film that is mirror to contemporary issues, investigations and hearings.
Madman Released April 14th
Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.