Sunday, October 11, 2015

Labyrinth of Lies - a review

Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann
After seeing Labyrinth of Lies on Friday, I wanted to get my reaction down before I lost the thread and before my enthusiasm cooled.  With apologies to Pascal and Cicero, I didn’t have the time to write a short review of this entertaining and informative film, so I wrote a long one instead.  Since then, I’ve had more time, so I’ve written a shorter one, as well.  Because this is the digital age, and you can easily unburden yourself of too many words with the flick of a delete button, I have no shame in sending you both versions.  I’ll put the short version first.

The short version:

In the 1930s, Germany, under Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, unleashed misery and chaos upon the world.  By the time the Third Reich was defeated in 1945, untold millions of people were dead, a largely successful attempt had been made to wipe out every Jewish man, woman and child in extermination camps, Europe’s economies were in ruin, and we still ask ourselves to this day how Germans could have participated in such evil doings.

Unfortunately, that human disaster was followed by another, a build-up of hostilities between two forces once joined to fight Hitler, the world of Stalinist communism and the Western world committed to a capitalist ideology. 

In order to fight the Communists, the West, led by the Americans, now the world’s leading superpower, cut short the pursuit of Nazi war criminals, including those who ran the concentration camp at Auschwitz, which has come to represent to most of us the pinnacle of the mechanized streamlined evil that was Nazism.

Every age gives us heroes, and as Nazism was effectively being extended into the Cold War through neglect, a group of men and women in Germany stood up and resisted the pressures to bury that evil and to dull the memory of the murderers of the six million Jews and others at Auschwitz.  They were lawyers who used their legal system both to punish these men, but also, and more importantly, to raise the consciousness of the German people about what had happened in their name, believing that not to do so only extended Germany’s shame.

These legal Nazi hunters, Fritz Bauer, Attorney General of the State of Hessen and his team of prosecutors, had their hands tied behind their backs because the German legal system they were working under was the same legal system, still in place, that had defended the worst perpetrators of war crimes at Nuremberg.  Just as East and West was divided by communist and capitalist ideologies, two legal systems were at loggerheads.  While the highest value within the legal philosophy that drove the Nuremberg Tribunal was the rights of the individual, the highest German value was legally-constituted authority, and duty to that authority. Under the German system, there was a wide gap between morality and the law, and reason determined that a man could not be punished, even for the most evil of deeds, if those deeds were not illegal at the time.

Labyrinth of Lies (Labyrinth of Silence, in German) is the story of those lawyers and their struggle to overcome that legal system and reach the conscience of the German people.

The long version:

The Cold War, the four decade long standoff between the Soviet Empire and the West, is generally thought to have started in earnest when the Soviets tried to close off access to Berlin by the Western powers in 1948 and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  In reality, the Cold War actually began the moment the Russians and Americans stopped fighting the Nazis and began an all-out competition for hearts and minds and territory and power.

That period of time is intensely personal to me.  It was my coming of age time.  I had finished school and was just starting my adult life.  And because I had joined the army and gone to work for the Army Security Agency, I was in Berlin from 1962 till 1965, as part of what was perhaps the greatest collection of snoopers in the world at the time.  I remember 40,000 being tossed around as the number of people in Berlin involved in espionage.  Some of it would become the stuff of thriller films for decades afterwards, right up to the present moment.  Other parts of it were, if observed up close, routine and dull as dishwater, including my point of contact with the “Rooskies,” or “die da drüben (those guys over there)” depending on whether you used the bad guy term my colleagues wearing the American uniform used, or the one used by my Aunt Frieda and Uncle Otto and their fellow Berliners, which focused on the tragedy of separation.

My colleagues and I listened in on communist party cadre sharing information with each other about broken water mains, chemical plant mis-deliveries and visitors from Moscow who had to be met at the airport.  All terribly top secret at the time.  All of absolutely no significance whatsoever a half century later.

Inside the walls of those quonset huts on top of Teufelsberg in Berlin, we were given to understand we were fighting for God, country and apple pie.  Not far outside those walls, across the country, in Frankfurt, something else was happening which wasn't even on our radar.  The Germans were beginning to come to terms at long last with the horrors of the Third Reich.  A courageous bunch of folk were making it their goal to smash the comforting notion that those horrors could and should be put to bed and forgotten. 

Astonished at the discovery that many Germans could not even identify Auschwitz as a place on a map, much less as a source of German shame, local prosecutors began taking up the task of charging the murderers of hundreds of thousands of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust.  The beginning and ending of the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials coincided almost to the day with the beginning and ending of my time with the ASA in Germany.  That coincidence adds a layer of significance for me, and helps me take this story to heart.

I learned of this coincidence only yesterday, a half century after these events took place, while watching the film Labyrinth of Lies (German: Im Labyrinth des Schweigens), a somewhat fictionalized treatment of the buildup to those trials.  It's a trivial coincidence, actually, but I’m struck by the irony that this story about how one could live so close to something and remain unaware that it was happening was being mirrored by my ignorance of the Frankfurt trials.  In December of 1963 I had not yet gone to Berlin. I was living in Frankfurt.

The film’s director, Giulio Ricciarelli, was born in Milan but he has made a career as a German stage and film actor for twenty-five years and calls Munich home.  Labyrinth of Lies is his first full-length film.  He might have made a documentary, but chose instead to fictionalize the story somewhat and create an entertaining tale of detective work.  It's not so much fictionalized, actually, as gussied up with pretty people.  Some might want to say this hero-making and prettifying only cheapens the actual story of the untiring efforts of probably more ordinary bureaucrats who might not dance and make love as well, but I think that would be terribly unfair.  A bit of sugar makes the medicine go down.  And if you find a bit of padding unworthy, remember that the story is ultimately about a man who devoted his life to putting his fellow Germans in a better place to take responsibility for their history.  That part of the story was not fictionalized; that actually happened.

The storyline is straightforward.  It begins in 1958, thirteen years after war’s end.  The Bundesrepublik under Konrad Adenauer is experiencing an economic miracle. Nobody is remotely interested in talking about the recent disaster. Auschwitz survivor Thomas Gnielka passes a schoolyard one day and recognizes one of the teachers as the former Auschwitz concentration camp commander.  He takes this information to the authorities, hoping to have the man arrested and prosecuted, but finds not only no interest, but actual hostility.  As luck would have it, there is a strict by-the-book kind of guy working in the D.A.'s office, (we're into fiction now) a man named Johann Radmann.  Radmann is bored with his job of processing traffic violations and hoping for a more exciting job.  The main thrust of the plot derives from the fact that when Radmann takes on the case, and finds to his surprise that he has the Attorney General at his back, he is not prepared for the discovery of how many toes he is about to step on.

Radmann burns himself out, ultimately, trying to bring Josef Mengele to justice. He learns that although Mengele lives in Argentina, he visits his home in Germany regularly and his movements are known to the German police and the local authorities.  He has friends in high places and comes and goes freely.  Having to recognize the limits of his power, Radmann struggles with his boss’s view that justice must take a back seat to recognition, that punishment should not be the ultimate goal of their investigation but bringing their countrymen to accept a sense of responsibility for history.

Some have criticized the film for its undue emphasis on chasing down Mengele when there were so many other stories to tell.   I don’t share that criticism at all.  It was the failure to capture Mengele that brought home the ugly truth that Germany’s descent into darkness didn’t end in 1945, but lasted well into the Cold War in the form of denial.

In a very real sense, you can blame the Americans for a good bit of the German failure to understand what they had done at Auschwitz and elsewhere during the Second World War.  If you’ve seen that magnificent film, Judgment at Nuremberg, you’ll remember the frustration the prosecutors had at having their hands tied when trying to track down war criminals.  “The Germans are now our friends,” they were told.  “We need them to fight the Russians.”  The task of chasing down the killers of six million Jews, gypsies, socialists, homosexuals and others would fall on the likes of Simon Wiesenthal.  The Americans were more inclined to help the Nazis blend into the woodwork.  And if the Americans, the war victors who now ran the Western World, were not going to press for justice, why should Germans themselves ask for trouble?   Reconciliation would seem to be in order.  Calming down.  Getting on with it.  Besides, how does one “punish” an entire nation, even if one can agree that they deserve punishment?

And so it came to pass.  The Americans were not the only enablers of denial and cover-up. The Vatican, too, either actively participated or at least stood by (it depends on whom you ask) when the Catholic Church in Croatia formed what came to be called Ratlines to smuggle Nazis out of Europe to safety in South America.  And there was nobody around – certainly not the Americans - to rap on the knuckles of Pius XII, except people of conscience like Rolf Hochhut, whose play, The Deputy, about the Vatican’s alleged support of Hitler and indifference to the Holocaust, was also making headlines in Germany in 1963.

In 1949 I was beaten up on the playground because I grew up in a place largely populated by immigrants and at one point our naïve fourth-grade teacher thought it would be a great idea if we all spoke about where our “people” had come from.  Most said Italy.  There was a sprinkling of Ireland and Poland.  I was the only one to say Germany.  (Canada seemed so dull next to Italy and Poland, and I identified more with my German side than with my Scottish/Canadian side.  I would pay for my innocence when some Italian kid (Mussolini?  Who’s Mussolini?) let me have it square in the face.  For being a Nazi, he said.  My mother’s response when I burst into tears at the question, “What happened in school today?” was “You’ve got to be more careful.”  She, who hid her German identity once the rocks went through the stained-glass windows at the local St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church, was being motherly.  She had no interest in politics.  She just wanted her little boy to be safe.

My mother’s side of the family, the German side, were a marvelous bunch of people.  They gave advice like, “If ever you’re out in the world and alone, find people who love to sing and you’ll be safe.”  They danced, loved their beer and their cigars and their bratwursts.  And more than anything, they loved to laugh.  After getting beaten up for being German, I set about trying to find out what made the bullies pick on me.  What I found out shook me to the core.  I was an American, after all, and Germany was still the enemy, and I didn’t have to go far to uncover the grizzly details of Nazi atrocities.  It took me a long time to reconcile, as a 9-year-old, how these people who could make steamed potatoes so delicious with a little butter and some dill, could be the same people who could make the trains run on time to Buchenwald and Auschwitz and just think of it as another day’s work.

“There are good people and bad people wherever you go,” was my German grandmother’s explanation.  But even though I was only nine at the time, it was already no longer a sufficient explanation, and I have spent my life with such ethical questions as to what degree do individuals bear responsibility for the groups they identify with, family, neighborhood, race or nation.  And is there such a thing as collective guilt?   And is Daniel Jonah Goldhagen right when he says in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners that we are making a terrible mistake blaming Hitler for the evil of the Holocaust, that guilt belongs on the heads of the entire German people.  Every last one of them.

Don’t agree with that?  Then how do you go about assessing which ones deserve blame, which ones should get some sort of slap on the wrist, and which ones should be exonerated?  Does the American genocide of the North American Indian and the centuries of slavery mean Americans have no right to speak on the topic?  Ditto for the British and the French and their years of bloody growth-stunting imperialism?  Does the fact that evil is a human condition obviate the need for identifying crimes and criminals and punishing them?  A naïve bunch of questions, ultimately, and our answers have not been satisfactory so far, because they keep coming back up,  over and over again, year after year.   In any case, here we are, in 2015, and the Germans are making a movie about the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials.  And I feel I have to ask why.  And why now?

I can guess at the answer to the why-now question.  It appears to be in the zeitgeist now for Germany to finally come to terms with itself as a land of immigrants.  This involves looking for a solid basis on which to build the new nation.  Does Germany have a leitkultur, an “original and foundational German culture” worth defending?  Does it have a right to impose that on new-comers? If so, how does the Holocaust figure in the way that leitkultur is constituted?  Can one justify setting the Holocaust aside as an aberration in German history and get on with it?  Can Germans be proud to be Germans again?  Yes, most would say.  But only if history is not buried and the response to it is responsible.  And there's the rub.  What does that actually mean?

The simple why question has a more obvious answer. An event as momentous as the Holocaust demands three things of us: that we learn and know about it, that we not forget it, and that we develop a satisfactory response to it.  Labyrinth of Lies tells the story of how the goals of the Cold War nearly led to our falling down on even the first and simplest of these three steps.  It is the story of a number of heroic men and women, driven by personal morality and a sense of responsibility to raise the consciousness of the German people for what happened in their name.  At the heart of the story is the question put to the chief prosecutor.  Johann Radmann is asked, “Do you want every young German to ask if their father was a murderer?”  “Yes,” he responds,  “That’s exactly what I want!”

Some background is in order.  The Frankfurt Auschwitz trials make no sense without the knowledge that the Americans pushed the Germans to take the low road and let criminal Nazis go unpunished so that the wheels of industry could continue to turn efficiently and so that Werner von Braun would not be the only German to come to work with the Americans against the Russians. 

Another piece of important information needed in establishing the context of the film is the fact that the German legal system approached war crimes differently from the way they had been approached by the victors at Nuremberg.  You will remember that the single most important outcome of the trials at Nuremberg was the judgment that one must accept responsibility for one’s individual actions, that the excuse of following orders doesn’t hold water. If you kill someone, you cannot hide behind the excuse that somebody told you to pull the trigger.  The law is governed by the notion that the individual is the basic unit of society, not the collective, and every individual must stand behind every act he or she performs, ultimately. 

The German legal system had not adopted the Nuremberg principles by the time of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, however. They were still governed by the authoritarian notion that if a legally constituted authority gave you an order, you simply had a duty to obey it.  You might be charged as an accomplice to murder, but not as a murderer yourself.   Not only had Nazis gone into hiding, but the legal system had their backs, so to speak, by continuing to argue, as they had at Nuremberg, that while the murderers at Auschwitz might be morally reprehensible, they were not legally liable.  The Allies had enforced victors’ justice. The Tribunal had applied ex post facto law and was violating the nullum crimen principle, that there is no crime without a law to make it a crime.  Both at Nuremberg and here in Frankfurt (because the system had not evolved), the killers had a legal “devil made me do it” defense.  I’m not responsible.  My boss is, and onward up the ladder to the state itself, or in Germany’s case, the Führer, which amounts to the same thing.

The impact of the principles established at the Nuremberg Tribunal cannot be underestimated.  In plain language, and in fact, the Americans had applied a kind of “victor’s justice,” demanding that those charged with crime should not have obeyed the laws in place, but laws they insisted should have been in place, i.e., the kinds of laws the Americans governed themselves by.  The very legitimacy of the International Military Tribunal was further weakened by the fact that the judges refused to allow any criticism of war crimes committed by the Allied powers, such as the bombing of the civilian populations of Hamburg and Dresden.  And of the wholesale deportation of Germans from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other places east of the Oder-Neisse line, what today would be referred to as “ethnic cleansing.”  And the fact that one of the judges was from the Soviet Union, a country which had committed acts against minority populations and political enemies more or less equivalent to those committed by the Third Reich.

This is way more detail than is reasonable for a film review, but I wanted to make the point that the film’s “heroes” who were trying to find German guilt for war crimes were not up against an arbitrarily established set of cowardly prejudices.  They were up against a well-reasoned and well-articulated legal tradition, even if today their arguments may no longer be persuasive.

One of the benefits of viewing the film, besides its obvious entertainment value, enhanced by good acting and good directing, are the questions it raises.  Like why there were so many hurdles one had to jump along the way to a full-scale world-wide adoption of the Nuremberg Principles, the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  And how we might want to (or not want to) adjust the filter we judge the crimes of the Third Reich by now that the United States itself has gone from being a leader in establishing these sources of morality to flaunting its abuse of them on the grounds of alleged national security, and placing the state above the individual in terms of the law.  The moral questions this German film about German history raises has far broader implications.

The principles articulated by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg led ultimately to the establishment of the UN Charter and a consensus that there is such a thing as an international community.   As a legal concept, with an International Criminal Court, and not just as an academic construct. Without the concept of international customary law as superior to the laws of individual states, there would be no mechanism for furthering human rights generally.  They would remain little more than an impossible dream. The clout necessary to bring war criminals to justice before the ICC is still weak – as evidenced by the failure to make those responsible for the invasion of Iraq or for Abu Ghraib or for Guantanamo face charges, for example – but the concept of international law is firmly in place.  At the time of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, it was not, and bringing Nazis to trial in Germany was an uphill climb indeed.

As Germans continue to use art and the media to comb through their history and expose facts and events too long hidden, they are inevitably up against the challenge of attracting and hanging onto their audience. The question is worth repeating: who wants to listen to yet another tale of German criminality?  Who wants to call poor old grandpa, now in his doddering years or on his deathbed, a killer?  Particularly if he mostly stood and watched.

Finding the right mechanisms to make this story palatable was crucial.  Because the task is daunting, one might forgive Ricciardelli and the producers of Labyrinth of Lies for taking the three actual public prosecutors in the D.A.’s office in Frankfurt appointed by Attorney General Fritz Bauer to conduct the investigation and making them into a single handsome and terribly likeable young composite, Johann Radmann, played by Alexander Fehling.  The fictional Radmann is portrayed as a virtual superman who stands alone against the bullying of his colleagues and even his own mother, to fight the good fight.  Add a love story, a bit of humor here and there, and you’ve got some pretty good entertainment.

It also helps that they made use of the talents of one of Germany’s best known actors, Gert Voss, whom some like to call the Lawrence Olivier of Germany, to play the role of Fritz Bauer.  Some big shoes to fill there, and Voss does the job superbly.  An early opponent of the Nazis, Bauer was jailed and sent to a concentration camp for a time in 1933, long before the “Final Solution” days, when he likely would not have survived.  He was released in 1935 and found his way to Sweden, where he worked with Willi Brandt for a time before making his way back to Germany in 1949 where he entered the civil service and rose to become Attorney General (Generalstaatsanwalt) for Hessen, where Frankfurt is located, and in a position to launch a campaign for justice.  In fact, Bauer chose the more important goal, as he saw it, of raising the German consciousness about its wartime responsibility.  His efforts led to a class action suit.

Bauer once stated, "In the justice system, I live as in exile."  In the film, if I remember correctly, he says “I’ve got no place to go outside this room,” referring to his office.  In his darkest moments of despair, having learned that Germany was protecting the likes of Josef Mengele and things were much worse than he originally thought, the Radmann character asks Bauer, his Jewish boss why he chose to stay in Germany, given all that has happened.  Bauer then speaks for victims of injustice and brutality by governments all over the world when he says, “This is where I met my wife.  This is where the pond is where my daughter played with ducks for the first time.  This is the only home I know.”

Voss died in Vienna of leukemia about the time the film was released.  Watching this actor exercise his craft was a highlight of the film for me.

Many will remember Alexander Fehling, who plays Chief prosecutor Johann Radmann, from Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, in which he played the role of Staff Sgt. Wilhelm.

Others in the cast include Johannes Krish as Simon Kirsch; Friederike Becht as Marlene, Radmann’s love interest; Hansi Jochmann as “Schmittchen,” Radmann’s secretary; Johann von Bülow as Radmann’s slow to come around colleague, Otto Haller; Robert Hunger-Bühler as opposition force Walter Friedberg; and André Szymanski as Thomas Gnielka, the camp survivor who gets the ball rolling.

I’m not alone in my view that this film is a success.  It has received a rating, at the moment, of 80% by critics on Rotten Tomatoes and 91% by viewers.  (I’m with the viewers, obviously).  It has already received a number of prizes and is Germany’s submission to the category of Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards in 2016.   It opened this week (October 2) in the U.S.

I consider it a must-see.

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