Still Shocking After all These Years: ‘Labyrinth of Lies’

Just when you think you’ve seen all the stories that could possibly emanate from World War II and its aftermath, another comes along—like this one—that invites one to say, “Why didn’t I know about this before?” Labyrinth of Lies begins in 1958, when many Germans had never heard of Auschwitz, believe it or not. The story centers on a young, ambitious public prosecutor (Alexander Fehling) who learns that a former Nazi officer at the notorious concentration camp is now working as a schoolteacher in Frankfurt. He insists that the man be arrested and soon learns that there is a conspiracy of silence among pubic officials who would rather let sleeping dogs lie.

The movie works because it isn’t a polemic. It creates interesting, three-dimensional characters and situations. Fehling is well-cast as the hero, a naïve young man whose moral outrage is completely credible. The character is actually a composite of three real-life figures who worked on this case. There are times when we in the audience are one jump ahead of him, more willing to believe the worst than he is, but screenwriters Giulio Ricciarelli (who also directed) and Elisabeth Bartel do a good job of making him relatable and not merely a figurehead.

Depending on how much you know of post-war Germany, the film also offers revelations: in spite of the famous Nuremberg Trials, no “ordinary people” had been prosecuted for their crimes during the war. The German government allowed Josef Mengele to come and go from Argentina at will to visit his family. And preparations for what became the Auschwitz Trials gave survivors the first opportunity to voice their experiences and be recognized. That, the head prosecutor explains to our hero, is what the trials are all about—not punishment so much as acknowledgment.

I wish the movie’s title wasn’t so obvious and on-the-nose (in Germany it’s called Labyrinth of Silence, which is no improvement). I’m aware that many critics feel the same way about the picture itself, with “earnest” being the kindest word in their reviews. But I found it thoroughly absorbing, a worthwhile movie that frames its agenda in a well-rounded dramatic narrative. The subject matter is timeless and its message as relevant as ever.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024