It’s a beautiful day in 1958 Frankfurt, Germany, and the schoolyard is full of laughing, happy children -- boys racing around, girls with their hair in precise blond plaits singing a traditional song about the glory of Germany. The school principal, a round-faced, tweedy man, oversees the happy scene, and his good cheer expands out to the street beyond the fence, where he notices an artist (Johannes Krisch) fumbling with his paint kit and the unlit cigarette between his lips. The principal extends a light through the bars of the fence, and the artist gratefully accepts it -- until he looks into the eyes of the principal, and something makes his blood run cold.
West Germany in the late post-WWII period was a place of booming prosperity: fresh, buttery croissants at the bakery; long, swingy frocks; American-style rock & roll bopping on the phonograph. The U.S. might still have a military presence there, but the local population old enough to remember the hardships of war are only too happy to settle into a sun-kissed collective amnesia, with no intention of rocking the boat for the younger generation. That’s why baby-faced lawyer Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) is able to stride into the courtroom with absolute confidence in the justice of the law. After all, when you’ve grown up with the luxury of never having to compromise your ideals, of course it’s easy to think that you can enforce what’s on the books without a second thought.
That unerring belief in justice is why Radmann perks up when a journalist (André Szymanski) makes a fuss in the courthouse, waving a piece of paper certifying that the local school principal -- that harmless, round-faced man -- was formerly a higher-up at Auschwitz, and that someone should do something about it. Radmann is puzzled -- a higher-up where? -- and after the journalist is shooed from the building, his commitment to upholding the law prompts him to track down that scrap of paper, not realizing that it will open up a Pandora’s box.
Labyrinth of Lies can be seen as a sort of philosophical sequel to The Lives of Others, the German movie about the activities of the Stasi secret police that won the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Both pictures are about making sense of Germany’s post-Nazi era, and about confronting the past without drowning in a whirlpool of guilt. (Casting the blond and blemish-free Aryan poster child Alexander Fehling in the lead symbolizes the blamelessness of his generation, and makes the burden of shouldering his forefathers’ guilt all the more crushing.)
But this legal thriller, rightly, touches on its philosophical conundrums delicately. Justice in this instance would mean uprooting 8000 otherwise exemplary citizens from their lives. Is it worth it to rip apart the carefully mended fabric of postwar society for the pursuit of justice? In the beginning, Radmann is certain the answer is yes. By the film’s halfway point, as the complicated truth of the legacy he’s inherited as a German becomes clearer, he’s not sure any more. A precision-tuned thriller full of small, deft touches (and beautifully gemütlich cinematography), Labyrinth of Lies’ moral conclusions are hard-won and sincere. It may be impossible to fix everything, but it’s unthinkable to do nothing.
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- Released: 2014
- Rating: R
- Review: It’s a beautiful day in 1958 Frankfurt, Germany, and the schoolyard is full of laughing, happy children -- boys racing around, girls with their hair in precise blond plaits singing a traditional song about the glory of Germany. The school principal, a roun… (more)