In the Labyrinth of Silence (2014): Written by Giulio Ricciarelli and Elisabeth Bartel, directed by Giulio Ricciarelli. Starring: Alexander Fehling, Johannes Kirsch, Friederike Becht, Hansi Jochmann, Johann von Buelow, Gert Voss, Robert Hunger-Buehler, and Andre Szymanski. Running Time: 122 minutes.
One of the most enduring debates in our world is how to approach reconciliation and healing after great crimes are committed, especially on a national or state level. There is no one clear answer, no one path or set of rules that can be universally applied to all situations. Sometimes great conflicts or crimes are maintained in an uneasy, “stable” status quo, like in Korea. Some are only resolved when a particular side wins decisively on the field of battle, like in Sri Lanka. Some societies choose to tackle the wounds of the past directly through formal organizations like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And some, like the German government in the years immediately following WWII and the revelations of the Holocaust, choose silence.
This is the world that a young lawyer, Johann Radmann, has grown up in, experiencing only the non-confrontational post-war world of Konrad Adenauer and the German “Economic Miracle.” Currently paying his legal dues in the rather dull world of legal traffic violations, he yearns for the chance to do something of substance, inspired by the example set by his father, himself a lawyer prior to his disappearance during the War. He seizes his chance when an aggressive journalist, Thomas Gnielka, confronts his colleagues with a claim by a friend of his, a survivor of Auschwitz survivor named Simon Kirsch. Having been not old enough to grasp his circumstances during the war itself, he is almost completely unaware of the true extent of Nazi brutality, and holds only a hazy notion of Auschwitz as a POW camp of sorts.
Despite his profound naiveté, or perhaps because of it, a senior member of the office named Fritz Bauer enlists him, another lawyer, and a secretary to fully investigate all leads that the journalist and his friend can provide regarding any surviving guards from Auschwitz that can be tried murder. And they have to have convincing proof that the people were either complicit in or fully aware of the extent of the killing that went on, since actual murder charges are the only ones not affected by a previously agreed-upon statute of limitations. Bauer has been chomping at the bit for years, looking for the chance to strike back at the former Nazis he knows are still free at every level of German society, but has been helpless to do anything about it due to the agreement reached among the Western powers following the Nuremberg Trials that any further members of Hitler’s government would either be ignored, or if they proved useful against the growing strength of the Soviet Union, protected. The goal is a single, massive trial, with as many survivors testifying against as many former SS members as possible, so as to finally break the veil of silence that has descended upon the country, resulting in a generation growing up entirely ignorant of the blood on their country’s hands.
Johann’s lack of comprehension of the scale of the tragedy is brutally rectified in his very first interview with another survivor. Surprised at the blasé nature of his questions, the man stares incredulously at him and asks (through an interpreter), “You want to know what crimes I saw? Do you not realize what Auschwitz was? They murdered hundreds of thousands of people!” After hearing this, a look of realization can be seen striking Johann right between the eyes; an abyss of unending darkness has opened up beneath his feet, and he almost dares not look down for fear of what he may see in the void below.
But look he must, and he does, even as the work begins to wear him down and affect his relationship with friends and his love for a young seamstress named Marlene. Through his interviews with survivors and his scouring of leftover records in the IG-Farbenhaus in Frankfurt (now the official offices for the US 5th Corps), he slowly develops both the case they need and his own terrifying understanding of both the extent of German atrocities and of the parallel terrors of silence imposed on the topic since then. He learns of the experiments (and continued freedom) of Josef Mengele, aka the Angel of Death, delves into his own father’s connection to the Nazi party, and as a result begins to lose his own ability to trust anyone he knows with even tangential connections to the war.
Like with another German film from earlier this year, Phoenix, Im Labyrinth des Schweigens never needs to resort to explicit depictions of the sufferings of the camps to have the desired effect. We have all seen the photos and the videos. We have seen movies like Schindler’s List, making the horrors of Auschwitz more real to us than any book or documentary could. Any piling on top of that would be redundant and numbing. Instead, the director chose deliberately to focus on the people themselves, as they tell their stories, with long close-ups of their faces as they struggle to reconcile themselves with the terrible events they have no choice but to remember. It’s almost a way to regain the humanity of those who suffered, to show them as individuals, something that can easily be lost amidst talk of the massive numbers of dead involved.
Johann’s emotional journey through the experience of preparing the trial, in many ways written to reflect the spiritual struggles of the entire country in its efforts to be able to face these crimes, is portrayed flawlessly by Alexander Fehling. The man comes fully equipped at all times with a beautifully trembling lower lip for whenever a moment of pure, emotional pathos is needed. His character is in many ways a stand-in for us as the audience. Any of us raised with a proper understanding of history have had to experience the same moments he does: the unknowing innocence in our early years of what people are capable of, the sense of unspeakable horror when we first confront the darkness or potential in us and those around us, and the daily struggle to be able to reconcile the conflicting natures of humanity so as to not allow ourselves to be dragged down into the abyss as well.
Given that the film, the first feature-length work by Giulio Ricciarelli, is attempting to shed light on a crucial aspect of German social development and reconciliation during the Cold War that has been ignored up ‘til now, I do feel that it could have delved further into the legal and cultural challenges facing everyone involved in the process. As a vehicle for conveying the evils of Nazism, it is certainly more muted in its approach than more explicit films dealing with the same subject matter, which will perhaps rob it of a deep emotional impact on many. Nonetheless, this is also a part of the tale of Germany and the Holocaust, and is therefore every bit as much worth remembering as the chilling memories of death in the camps themselves. It needs a place in our collective memories as an example of the little bits of good than can be done in our daily lives to counter such awful acts, to rebuild what others would destroy.