In February of this year, the Academy Award for Best Picture was presented to Spotlight, a drama about the ethical implications of revealing an institution’s dark past. Little did audiences know that a German film with a very similar premise was released many months earlier.
Labyrinth of Lies (or Im Labyrinth des Schweigens to give its German title) is a biographical picture set in the year 1958, a time when the Federal German Republic, or West Germany, was a young and naïve nation. Its older citizens kept their Nazi history hidden from the public, while the Republic’s younger inhabitants were oblivious to Germany’s war atrocities.
One of these young citizens is Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), a public prosecutor working in the city of Frankfurt. He is ambitious and eager for greater work, but unfortunately the majority of his cases are contested traffic offences. His big break comes from an unlikely source: journalist Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski), who has information that a former Nazi is teaching at a local primary school.
Radmann’s efforts to charge the teacher are hampered by ambivalence from his colleagues and a lack of concrete evidence. Growing desperate, Radmann approaches Gnielka’s friend Simon (Johannes Krisch) who has a number of documents which were taken from the infamous prison camp at Auschwitz. Simon’s papers aren’t enough to convict the teacher, but they are evidence of the most hideous of war crimes.
Much like the aforementioned Spotlight, this film is not one to be enjoyed as such, but rather thought about. Labyrinth of Lies puts forward a number of ethical questions for the characters, and the audience, to hypothesise over. Such dilemmas make for some very interesting and engaging dialogue between the characters, which is as it should be.
It would also explain why the movie has gained very little attention until recently. Labyrinth of Lies had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2014, with its German release not long after; it appeared in most Australian cinemas in April, and only now is getting a DVD release. The film may have Spotlight to thank for this interest – all of a sudden, a large audience has developed a hankering for biopics such as this one.
Sadly, Labyrinth of Lies is not the strongest biopic in recent years, since it is what the Germans would call melodramatisch. The fall of the main protagonist is so unnecessary and overdone, serving almost no purpose to the story, while Johann’s female love interest has so little impact that her presence serves only as a distraction.
Nonetheless, Labyrinth of Lies is another gem in the underappreciated world of German cinema. Forgive its clichés and it can be seen as a provocative, intelligent film on par with the Academy Award-winning Spotlight.