Lost in conviction
My love of movies started through a love of the writing, through worshipping “strong voices” in the most literal sense, and the last quarter century of my cinephilia seems like a re-education from that initial notion. More and more, it feels like a perfectly polished script from a screenwriter with a recognizable “voice,” whether it’s by Woody Allen or David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin, can only be directed one way—the way that it’s written. A more stripped-down script offers a world of possibilities to a smart director, letting them tailor their art to the blank slate of a mannequin rather than the exactitudes of a model.
Take the German-language Labyrinth of Lies—wide-eyed and sincere, it exudes a childlike confidence akin to a Rousseau painting, and whatever it lacks in nuance and cleverness it makes up for in its mix of heart-on-sleeve moralism, pulp drama and classic movie forms and rhythms. The script by first-time director Giulio Ricciarelli and co-writer Elisabeth Bartel is almost doltish at times, and the protagonist’s journey from cartoonish straight arrow lawyer to cartoonish cynical drunk practically invites laughter. And yet the film is engrossing and pragmatic and hard to resist, thanks mostly to its elements of design.
Labyrinth of Lies opens in Germany 1958, just far enough removed from World War II for an entire generation to grow up blissfully ignorant of the Nazi atrocities. The story centers on the exposure of the horrors at Auschwitz, a real-life investigation that ended in the conviction of numerous unrepentant guards, but the film has all the complexity and guile of a Hardy Boys mystery. It’s a curious, white-guilt inversion of the whodunit, since we’re unraveling a mystery where we already know the murderers, and it’s the investigators rather than the perpetrators who are forced to atone for their terrible crimes.
We’re always dozens and dozens of steps ahead of the characters, and in the face of such ignorance, subtlety might as well go out the window. The plot points are so plain and predictable that I kept expecting characters would turn to the camera and say, “Looks like we’re lost in a labyrinth … a labyrinth of lies, that is!” It never happened, which in the context of the film qualifies as restraint. Ricciarelli and crew counter the blandness of the narrative with filmmaking that is blunt and efficient, with brusquely sensuous camera movements and a hyperactive editing rhythm.
As lead prosecutor Johann Radmann, Alexander Fehling is another beautiful blank slate. With his softened Hitler youth looks and slowly melting stare, Fehlig captures the deflowered devastation of a devoted lawman who realizes that his parents helped perpetrate the Holocaust. A lack of self-awareness is a running theme here, one that Ricciarelli feels compelled to underline ad nauseam (cue German newsboy shouting headlines about the anniversary of Hiroshima), as though the dopiness of the storytelling were an expression of the infantile denial of the post-war Germans.
In a weird way, that’s great writing.