Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Labyrinth of Lies

(Im Labyrinth des Schweigens, Germany, 2014)

What did you do in the War, Daddy? My generation in America and Britain can ask that question of our fathers and not have to worry about finding out the old man was a fucking Nazi, or even worse, a fucking SS Nazi. Not so in post-War Germany. So what did the fathers’ generation do in the years after the War? Why, they re-wrote history. That, or ignored it, pretended it never even happened. This movie takes place in 1958, and most young Germans had never even heard of Auschwitz. They thought the camps were simply for internment of enemies of the state. Regrettable, but no big deal. The Allies interned people, too, right? It was war!

Johann Radman is a prosecutor in Frankfurt, and he is as ignorant as others of his generation. He gradually becomes aware of the sheer level of horror his country had engaged in. It isn’t easy. There are no books in the library about the extermination camps. The only real source of information is the handful of survivors. As he and his secretary and another prosecutor sink deeper and deeper into the cesspool of depravity he begins to question everything he thought was true. His girlfriend’s father was a fucking Nazi. So was his own father, who he had thought was a hero, killed on the Eastern Front. But he soldiers on, against great opposition, to bring some of these camp directors and guards to justice. Many of these men (I hate to call them men, but on the outside they looked just like regular human beings) were well established in new lives. Some were pillars of society.

The biggest fish, Eichmann and Mengele, are living it up in Argentina. Israel captures Eichmann, but Mengele is more elusive. Johann becomes obsessed with the monster doctor. (He was never tried. He died in a swimming accident some years later.) But he achieves some level of victory. Some of the guards were tried and found guilty. It was the first time in history that a country tried some of its own soldiers for crimes against humanity. That’s something, I guess. At least it opened some German eyes.

The movie is a little pedantic at times, but at its best achieves some real emotional power. The best part is the secretary. She sits in the corner, taking down the testimony of the Shoah survivors, and we see the growing horror in her eyes. She becomes as dedicated as Johann to the cause of making at least some of these monsters pay a small price. I guess that’s the best one can hope for in an imperfect world.