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'Labyrinth of Lies' review: German take on postwar guilt

Alexander Fehling in "Labyrinth of Lies."

Alexander Fehling in "Labyrinth of Lies." Credit: TNS, Sony Pictures / Heike Ullrich

Think of "Labyrinth of Lies" as a western, "High Noon" if you will, except the bad guys are Nazis, the townsfolk are German and Gary Cooper's Will Kane is a young, idealistic lawyer named Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling). A junior public prosecutor in 1958 Frankfurt, Johann is upbraided by a journalist named Gnielka (Andre Szymanski) when he admits not knowing a thing about Auschwitz -- but no one in Germany, especially among the young, will admit they know much about Auschwitz. Not at first. By the time the young crusader is finished, he'll have taken his country and himself through a crucible of guilt, and possibly redemption.

Germany's submission this year for the foreign-language Oscar, "Labyrinth of Lies" ventures onto some infrequently explored territory, the post-de-Nazification period of German history, between the war and the arrest of Adolf Eichmann, when many Germans could plausibly plead ignorance to both war crimes and national culpability. "Everyone became a resistance fighter after 1945," sneers an American military officer, after Johann seeks help in rooting out the many ex-Nazis living comfortably among them. As he pursues various camp guards and SS officers who've transitioned so smoothly into civilian life, Johann does not become a popular figure among his fellow citizens. And the more he learns, the more obsessed he becomes.

"Do you want every young German," asks one of Johann's furious colleagues, "to ask if his father was a murderer?" Yes, that's pretty much what he wants.

"Labyrinth" pretends to a kind of naturalism, but director Giulio Ricciarelli not only employs an effective and subtle style, but a coy way of putting characters together, and an often arch way of allowing those characters to develop. This is particular so between Johann and Marlene (Friederike Becht), a young woman he first meets in court, where he insists she pay a traffic fine she can't afford. It's the law, he says; you're a monster, she replies. Contempt turns into something more affectionate, but the whole romance seems a bit superfluous. Johann's mission is the story and it gets him entangled with Israelis, their abduction of Eichmann, a virtually single-handed manhunt for Josef Mengele and various crises of conscience, confidence and purpose. For all the moral profundity that Johann has to wrestle with, he's also an irresistibly appealing hero, and Fehling's an actor who's easy to watch.

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