Talking with with Guilio Ricciarelli, director of ‘Labyrinth of Lies’
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Talking with with Guilio Ricciarelli, director of ‘Labyrinth of Lies’

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Director Guilio Ricciarelli, left, with Alexander Fehling on the set of “Labyrinth of Lies.”
Director Guilio Ricciarelli, left, with Alexander Fehling on the set of “Labyrinth of Lies.”

Eric A. Goldman: Why did you make this film?

Guilio Ricciarelli: Because the story has not been told! It may sound strange, but Fritz Bauer and the Frankfurt Trials are not part of our public consciousness in Germany. It was such a turning point in German history and he is forgotten. When I do question and answer session in Germany and ask students whether they have ever heard of Fritz Bauer or the Trials, they don’t.

This is my first feature film. I was looking for a strong story. I could never imagine doing something historical. Then I found this story through Elizabeth Bartel, with whom I wrote the script. You have this theme — a German theme — a whole decade and story that has not been told… For a filmmaker, that is quite exciting. There are so many stories that have been told, in so many ways. Usually as a filmmaker, you are treading along paths that have already been walked on, but this is something that nobody knows about.

EAG: What was the reaction to your film in Germany?

GR: Very positive. The critics liked it and it did good box office. People really liked it. When Elizabeth first showed it to me, I said to her that I could not believe the level of denial in the ‘60s. I began reading and doing research. We talked to historians. I suddenly realized that my whole vision of German history was wrong. Before working on the film, if you would have asked me, I would have said that there were the horrors of the Holocaust and afterward, Germany would have started dealing with it. The truth is that after 1945, Germany did just about everything to sweep it under the rug, deny it and not talk about it. Then, a handful of individuals in 1963 basically forced the country to look at what had happened.

I grew up with a lot of information about the Holocaust. We had it in history lessons. Every student goes to visit a camp. This dealing with history today in Germany is very much a part of our culture, but it started then. This turning point in German history is forgotten! That is what was amazing. That is why we chose to make this film.

EAG: What about those Germans who say that there is too much being done about the Holocaust. “Enough already”?

GR: There are some very uneducated people voicing that opinion. They are just uneducated. But there is also a certain tendency in educated people to say, “Enough. I’ve heard enough!” The reality is that this is still a defining issue. This is our identity! It is not for Germans to say, “Enough. We’ve heard enough about it.” What amazed me, in my Q&As, is how alive a lot of this history is still in families. I always tell this story. ‘This woman comes to me and says that we have a box from our grandfather in our family. It’s locked and we are all afraid to open it because we don’t want to know what grandfather did during the war.’

On one occasion in Brussels, a young woman raised this issue. She told me that her husband said that Germans today are obsessed with this history. My response was to quote Faulkner, “The past is not over; it’s not even past.” (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”). She then thanked me for the film and told me that her grandfather had actually died in Auschwitz.

EAG: What of your adaptation of this story?

GR: We did not just do a history lesson. We made a film about a character, a very human story that is not told. The more I travel with the film, the more I understand that this is not just about the Holocaust — and of course it is German history. It’s also a break in civilization. It is something that humanity is chewing on. The world is still dealing with the reality that this actually could have happened. There will be more stories told and I think it is right to do so.

As a filmmaker, your first impulse is to look for a strong story. These are strong stories! It is a natural process. As you can tell, we did not just take a piece of history to relate. We wanted to take a stand — an emotional stand. In the inner-workings of the script, there is also risk, in that the film exposes itself. This was really a scary process! It you tackle such a difficult subject, you have to live up to it. You cannot just use it and not give up something of yourself. As human beings, we tackled this and went all out with what we think and what we feel. You can see who we are and I think it took a lot of guts.

EAG: Why did you hold back on letting the audience know that Fritz Bauer was Jewish?

GR: I tried to be true to his spirit. He was very careful. He did not want this to be about a Jew exacting revenge on the German population. That is why he put young prosecutors in front. For him it was not about that — it was about human beings. It was about Germans sitting in trial over Germans. So he did not emphasize this point, so I did not feel, as a filmmaker, that it was essential to the story to emphasize it. When we get to know it — it is part of the horrible atmosphere then, when somebody says that, yes, he is a Jew — as if that had any meaning or explanation for why they were prosecuting. He did not put that into the forum, so I thought it would be good not to.

EAG: And yet at a certain point you do introduce this into the story?

GR: But then it is part of the story, when the young prosecutor is confronted. There is the Friedberg character, who is second in command in the office and he tries to dissuade him. In the end, that’s his final argument that Bauer is a Jew and he has never gotten over it. That is why he is doing it!

EAG: You are half-Italian and half-German. How does that affect your approach in making this film?

GR: The film is very German. The emotion that the film is always seeking — I think that is very Italian. The theme is very German and it is a very German film, but there is a part of it that is Italian.

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