Yesterday I watched “Labyrinth of Lies”, a German movie originally released in 2014. The version with English subtitles was released by Amazon Prime in 2016.
The film is a really interesting reflection on true events that happened in 1958 Germany, when the population was still refusing to face the past and the horror of WWII, when Nazi officers were secretly living in Germany doing everyday jobs and even being the nice guys in their local communities, knowing the Government is not interesting in persecuting them. It would upset the public to find out what really happened, as we learned from the movie, and this was indeed the case in the reality.
I read about German disbelief to face the past in post-war Germany. I knew about Nürenberg trials held by Allies and not Germans, as also emphasized in this movie. I also knew that many Nazi officers fled to Latin America to find a shelter and that some of them were able to even visit Germany without being arrested at the boarder. Including notorious Dr Mengele who conducted horrific experiments in Auschwitz on prisoners.
This film gives an interesting reflection on those events by introducing several characters and the fact their fathers have been members of the Nazi party. As movie emphasises, many former Nazi’s justified involvement as something that had to be done at the time. “Everyone was a Nazi”, we hear several times when people were confronted by a young prosecutor Johann Radmann who starts an investigation after he receives information from a journalist Thomas Gnielka about former Auschwitz commander Charles Schultz working in an elementary school in Frankfurt Am Main as a teacher. We also heard a powerful rant against Johann asking him if he wants for every German youngster to ask his father whether he was a Nazi. Johann not less powerfully replies that is exactly what he wants. We also hear arguments how victory is written by the winners and the official version of events thus cannot be trusted, only to see silence when Johann replies back quoting archival material collected by the Nazi’s and personal stories of victims.
However, this movie also shows how difficult it is to cope with something that personally touches you and how a perception changes once you realise your own involvement. Therefore, Johann learns from his mother (and then checks with the archives) that his father was a member of the Nazi party just like some other people he accused of. Previously he believed his father was not a member and that he died in the resistance movement. He also learns that his friend journalist Gnielka was in Auschwitz as a 17 year old boy who was recruited against his will and who watched what was going on without doing enough, only to become a journalist and trace Nazi criminals normally incorporated into the society after the war.
Gnielka learned from his Jewish friend who survived the Holocaust about Nazi officer working in an elementary school and informs the public prosecutor’s office, and this is where his and Johann’s collaboration started for it was only Johann who was interested in continuing with the case. This rejection from other colleagues is portrayed as a mixture of convinced Nazi’s incorporated in the system after the war who refused to prosecute their peers and who were doing everything to stop investigations, as well as refusal to believe that something like Auschwitz really happened by German colleagues who were not of Nazi beliefs.
The most powerful moment of the film is when Johann and Gnielka go to visit Auschwitz to pray kaddish for murdered daughters of Simon, their Jewish friend who survived the Holocaust and whose documents (that Johann and Gnielka have stolen from his suitcase) started the investigation. It was also Simon who saw and recognised a Nazi officer in the elementary school, but throughout the movie he was refusing to testify fearing consequences as he saw there is no willingness to open a discussion and disclose to the public on what really happened. Many members of public either did not know about Auschwitz or they refused to admit they know, as the film portrayed and as it did indeed happened. Simon powerfully states he regrets he never prayed kaddish for his twin girls who died in Dr Mengele’s notorious experiments because he did not believe God was present in Auschwitz. I read this statement many times and perhaps this sentiment contributed to the modern state of Israel being so secularised.
Johann and Gnielka eventually go to Auschwitz for Simon, as he asked them after surviving two heart attacks, and they put kippa’s on their heads, stones on an imaginary grave of two little girls, and read kaddish from Siddur. This is a very powerful moment of the film that brings tiers as we see two German men one of whom had a Nazi father and the other one was there as a young boy watching everything that happened praying kaddish and putting kippa’s for two dead Jewish girls. A question that not many films on Holocaust answer and this one does, is how could have any Jew remained in Germany after everything that happened and after all post-war denial. While majority of Jews either died or fled elsewhere (Israel, Canada, United States) some did stay. As Simon described it was because all their memories were there. Simon knew where he had a first walk with his girls and where he bought them first ice creams, and those memories were making him stay to continue living his history and remembering his lost family.
After learning his father was involved with Nazism, Johann at first abandons his investigation and takes up a job in a private law office only to realise this is not the right thing to do, and especially not since he was expected to defend clients even if they were guilty. In the office he meets one of the lawyers who represented one of Nazi commanders he was prosecuting who greets him friendly, shrugs his shoulders and explains to Johann how things work. Johann realised he cannot abandon his work, returns to the public prosecutor office and continues analysis of archive and prosecutions, which resulted with first convictions for Auschwitz crimes, and opened a public process of facing the past.
Thank you for reading.