Over the last few decades, historians have taken a closer look at how the Holocaust was treated in the first decade and a half after World War II.
In America, survivors typically did not share their experiences and few showed interest in hearing about them. Survivors often were shunned as foreigners; most American Jews sought acceptance and assimilation, so the Holocaust played little role in the conversation of the day. Such also was the case in Europe, where survivors had to adjust to living next door to people who very well may have tried to kill them. And in Israel, survivors had to contend with a bias that unlike the “New Jew” Israelis, they had failed to resist. As for prosecution of Nazi war criminals, within a few years of the war’s end, the Western victors, including America, came to the conclusion that it was far more important to rebuild Germany and bolster it as an ally against Soviet aggression than to continue to go after Nazis.
Just looking at cinema history, we gain a clear picture of the nearly complete absence of films about the Holocaust until at least 1958, not just in this country but also in Western Europe. By that time, 13 years after the war, with a nascent civil rights movement and after several important rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, American Jewry was feeling a bit more comfortable here, and so American popular culture finally began to tackle the Shoah. But in Europe and particularly in Germany, the subject remained taboo — until a young German prosecutor, too young to have been involved in World War II, discovered that former Nazis walked freely in the streets. These were not chefs, accountants, or low-level officials; they were former concentration commandants and Gestapo officers who were participating in all aspects of post-war German life, treated with the highest respect and regard.
That is where film director Guilio Ricciarelli and screenwriter Elizabeth Bartel begin their story. Their film, “Labyrinth of Lies,” is one of the most remarkable and engrossing films that I have seen in recent memory.
In 1958, when a young German prosecutor requested permission to go after Nazis whom he felt should not be free, Germany’s justice department was not inclined to allow it. In fact, the prosecutor met with great resistance. This film explores that Germany, where knowledge of war crimes was next to nil and where Chancellor Konrad Adenauer felt it best to “move beyond the past.”
It should be noted, however, that this was the same chancellor responsible for giving the reparations (many called it “blood money”) to Israel in the early 1950s that helped keep the new State of Israel financially solvent. In one powerful scene in the film, a newspaper reporter casually stops everyday Germans and asks them if they know what “Auschwitz” was. Nobody has a clue. If someone had asked that question in the United States then, I am not sure if the answer would have been any different. Young Germans knew little or nothing of the Holocaust. If anything, Germans were taught to forget about the past.
As for this country — I think back to the fact that I, a product of a Jewish day school education, knew next to nothing about the Shoah then. We certainly were not taught about it. That Steven, one of my classmates through high school, was the child of survivors never quite connected for me. I rarely saw his parents and he certainly never talked about them or what they endured during the war. I was only introduced to the Holocaust toward the end of high school. If that was true for me me, certainly it was true for most American-born Jews at the time.
The film begins in West Germany in 1958. It’s a boom time, an economic miracle. Young public prosecutor Johann Radmann comes across some documents about members of the SS who served in Auschwitz. He is frustrated, involved with small cases of theft and traffic violation, and yearning to do more. He examines the files more closely and is struck by what he discovers. Former Nazis are living openly. Some even teach in public schools. The record shows that in 1945, 10 percent of all Germans were members of the Nazi party; as late as 1952, 60 percent of all civil servants in Bavaria were former Nazis. When Radmann moves forward to initiate charges, he is shocked by the hostility from his colleagues as they try to get him to disregard what he has found.
This was the beginning of what, over the course of five years, led to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Director Ricciarelli and screenwriter Bartel do a superb job in showing us just how difficult it was for this prosecutor to move forward and how West Germany ignored its involvement in mass murder. This is a brilliantly crafted film that captures a piece of history that has been forgotten.
The trials stimulated a new generation of Germans to begin asking their parents “What did you do during the war?” This is Ricciarelli’s first feature film, but he doesn’t hit us over the head with too many facts or too much history. He just confronts us with the emotions of everyday Germans who had to come to grips with the fact that a father or mother might have been a Nazi. The film also shows show how one man, with the backing of another, a fearless Hesse state attorney-general named Fritz Bauer, makes a difference. The fact that Bauer was Jewish is revealed to us only casually, midway through the film, as if the writer wanted it understood that the mission of the prosecution was not Jewish vengeance but German self-knowledge.
“Labyrinth of Lies” is but one of a number of films being made today by young Germans who want to take a critical look at their country. They are not afraid of the past. They want the new generation of Germans to delve into a history that may not be glorious. Two weeks ago, when I asked the multitalented and prolific 70-year-old German film director Wim Winders what he thought of this trend, he said that he saw no real purpose in making these pictures. He believed that they were being made because they could sell in the international market. Maybe Winders represents that generation of Germans who wanted to leave behind a past of shame and disgrace.
That certainly is not the case for Guilio Ricciarelli and this new generation of German movie-makers, who want all Germans to know the past, and to learn from it. Plus, as Ricciarelli told me, the story is a compelling one, which makes for great cinema.
Alexander Fehling, who we will see as Claire Danes’ love interest on the new season of “Homeland,” is outstanding playing Radmann. German theater great Gert Voss is simply superb as Fritz Bauer; it would be his last film role.
The German Film Academy clearly differs with director Winders; it has submitted “Labyrinth of Lies” as its nominee for Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Academy Awards. Another German film, “Nowhere in Africa,” about a married Jewish couple who find refuge during the war years in Africa, won the Oscar in 2001. Though the field of nominees is far from set, I could easily see this film winning this year. The film opens today in Manhattan. Go see it!
Eric Goldman is founder of Teaneck-based Jewish film distributor Ergo Media. He is an adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University.