Giulio Ricciarelli’s “Labyrinth of Lies” recounts a story of the Holocaust through a prosecutor’s drawn out case against former SS Officers living freely in 1950s Germany. What’s unfortunate about the film is that it so often makes melodrama out of the horrific events of the Holocaust. Tragedies such as the Holocaust are things that should never be undermined by over-the-top emotions. Thankfully, the film has many aspects that are resolutely impressive over the course of its 124 minutes, such as the brewing character development as they reach the film’s heartbreaking denouement.
“Labyrinth of Lies” begins dishearteningly: while it is supposed to depict post-WWII Germany, it uses unfittingly bright, overly sentimental colors throughout the introduction before rushing into its central plotline. Righteous and young Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), a public prosecutor, is told that a former high-ranking Nazi who was stationed at Auschwitz during the war is now a local schoolteacher. Everyone at his law firm ignores the problem because they believe bringing attention to the schoolteacher will only reopen old wounds, leaving Johann as the sole monitor of the issue.
It becomes readily apparent that Germany’s mended scars are actually a festering, lingering infection. The amount of times a blank expression is drawn after uttering the name Auschwitz is horrifying to the modern audience. Few know of the Nazi regime’s atrocities, and those who do are certain they are false claims asserted by Americans. In fact, the perpetrators are free and in the public eye, taking on public posts like teaching school children. It is this unawareness and denial that Johann discovers within both his peers and himself that sparks his conviction to take action.
Unfortunately, the director Giulio Ricciarelli fails to capitalize on such a gripping topic. Poor pacing is to blame. The film speeds through the important beginnings of Johann’s case, but instead focuses on a plot-nonessential romance with a spunky girl (Friederike Becht, who thankfully is entertaining). Later comes the melodrama, which is at its worst when the prosecutor interviews multitudes of Jews testifying to their experiences in the concentration camp. Instead of recognizing the depth of their suffering, the film demeans it by skipping through with a montage, underscored by overly dramatic music.
Thankfully, Fehling bursts through the film’s ineptitude. He plays Johann with dogged level-headedness that makes his character both compelling and succinct. As his investigation goes on, Johann transforms into an exhausted alcoholic, losing all of the determination and conviction he had in the first half of the movie. The change is slow, subtle and thoughtful. In many scenes he appears exhausted, shattered by his coworkers’ apathy towards the horrors of the Nazi regime. By the end, when Johann turns to cynicism, Fehling portrays the mindset empathetically and with great skill.
“Labyrinth of Lies” redeems itself in a similar manner, in which the plot becomes more complex with time. The turning point is during the trial, when a Jewish father delivers an astonishing monologue on how his twin girls were tortured and murdered by the infamous Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz. The camera lingers quietly on his face, tears and emotions streaming out to the viewer. Though melodramatic at times, the end of the film is ultimately a raw depiction of the travesties which occurred during the Holocaust.
“Labyrinth of Lies” premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released on Sept. 30 in theaters nationwide.
Email Ethan Sapienza at [email protected]