Labyrinth of Lies – Germany’s official Academy Award submission – takes place in the late 1950s, around ten years after the end of World War II, with Germany is in a state of repair and most of the population in denial about the holocaust. It’s an undoubtedly fascinating topic, but is diluted somewhat by the polished direction and unfocused narrative. Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), a young idealistic prosecutor, inadvertently establishes himself as one of the main instigators of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trail when he overhears newspaper reporter Thomas Gnielka (Andre Syzmanski) talking about how a former SS officer is now a teacher at a local school.
Obviously disturbed and keen to make a name for himself outside of dealing with parking violations, Johann launches an investigation with the help of Thomas and Attorney General Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss). But what starts as a case against one person soon opens up one that pushes Johann in interesting ways, opening his eyes and distracting him from other aspects of his life, such as his budding romance with a dressmaker (Friederike Becht). Written by Elisabeth Bartel and Guilio Ricciarelli (who also makes his directorial debut), Labyrinth of Lies unravels at a steady pace as Johann realises the extent to which the web of lies surrounding Germany’s denial stretches. He encounters opposition as every turn, not only from colleagues, but also from the police, who seem reluctant to dredge up the past. It’s only when victims come forward and accusers are name-checked that anyone outside of Johann and his immediate helpers begin to take notice.
It’s a shame, then, that it’s watered down so much. The confessionals, for instance, are tied up into a neat montage set to maudlin music that takes away the ugliness of what the victims have experienced. Instead, we’re left with teary-eyed close ups of Johann and clerical assistant Schmittchen (Hansi Jochmann) as the horrors are laid out on the table. The narrative, too, could have done with some tidying as there’s one too many sub-plots that distract from the central investigation, none more so than Johann’s romance. It’s not that the romance is dull, more that it’s unnecessary.
Riccaiarelli’s direction is accomplished enough, but is mostly one dimensional, all the nastier elements kept at arms distance. There’s never a true understanding for the material that awards the audience any real need to care about what they’re watching, despite the fact that the subject matter is so interesting and there’s a fascinating film in their somewhere. The acting is okay, Fehling a decent enough protagonist that nicely highlights how unaware the younger generation are to some of the real world horrors that happened in the past. But it never catches fire in the way that it should, meaning Labyrinth of Lies is watchable but not compulsively so.