Germany’s nominee for this year’s Academy Award for best foreign film, Labyrinth of Lies, has the strengths and weaknesses that come along with that sort of institutional endorsement. The historical drama is about a very important story, but it’s not an especially good movie.
Oh, it’s very well-made, handsomely shot and cast, with themes so emphatically underlined that no one can miss the message. If nothing else it could serve as a decent gateway film for anyone who needs a primer about the horrors of the genocide of World War II. There’s just not a lot of nuance here.
The movie’s point is that for a gray decade or so after the end of the war, the hard facts of Hitler’s “final solution” were not fully known — even by many (younger) Germans. Recent history was quietly being swept under the nation’s figurative carpet.
Alexander Fehling stars as Johann, a junior prosecutor in Frankfurt, Germany, 1958. Though his father disappeared in the war when he was a kid, Johann inflexibly adheres to Dad’s admonition to “always do the right thing.” That’s true even when he’s prosecuting a piddling traffic violation lodged against a sparky, pretty young woman named Marlene (Friederike Becht). Any regular filmgoer will know she’ll turn up later as Johann’s romantic interest. (Oops, spoiler — sorry.)
Johann’s moral rectitude finds a perfect subject when crusading journalist Gnielka (André Szymanski) introduces him to an artist named Simon (Johannes Krisch). Simon was imprisoned in Poland at Auschwitz, where his twin daughters came under the horrifying care of the mad scientist, Dr. Mengele. (A creepy, speculative film about Mengele’s post-Germany life, screened at last year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and worth a look, is The German Doctor.)
Camp survivor Simon has recognized a local schoolteacher as one of the guards at Auschwitz. When Johann tries to bring the man to justice — and get him suspended from his job, as Germany’s post-war law requires — he bangs up against polite discouragement from older colleagues. Once he starts trying to round up additional witnesses about the atrocities of the concentration camps, he collides with his own ignorance. After all, he was a teenager when the war ended, and he’s shocked by what he learns.
“What do you think Auschwitz was like?” asks the representative of one survivor. “A little summer camp by a lake?”
Johann’s metaphoric great white whale is Mengele himself, rumored to be dwelling in South America. But the more he tries to track his quarry, the more resistance he meets from higher-ups. He also runs into tension with normal folks, who would rather have fond, vague memories of relatives who died during the war than the brutal facts about what those soldiers actually did.
Unfortunately, Labyrinth treats us as if we’re as uneducated about the Holocaust as Johann. It’s a spoon-fed history lesson. Actor Fehling looks like a handsome, blond German hybrid of Matthew Macfadyen (Mr. Darcy in the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice) and Clive Owen — but lacks either actor’s intensity. He’s pretty, and pretty blank. Of course, that feels appropriate in the film’s last act, when you realize how naïve Johann actually is. People call him a cowboy, but he’s a Boy Scout. With historical hindsight, we viewers are all ahead of him in understanding the immense horror of the Holocaust, and the subsequent corruption designed to cover up the complicity of the hundreds of thousands of Germans who served Hitler.
The notion of “just doing my job” as an excuse for performing horrible acts is an eternal one, covered in interesting ways recently in the indy American film about a fast food restaurant, Compliance. Another recent approach to the Holocaust in particular it 2012’s Hannah Arendt, about the Eichmann trial in Israel. It’s a smaller, drier, more rigorous movie than Labyrinth of Lies, and, for me, a lot more compelling.
Also working on a small, independent scale, Jafar Panahi — the Iranian writer-director of The Mirror, The White Balloon, The Circle and others — has been jailed and forbidden by his government from making any more films or leaving the country. But he continues to do his thing.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi kicks off with the illusion that we’re watching a documentary, shot mainly through a dashboard camera as Panahi ferries people around Tehran. That illusion fades quickly. The movie is scripted and the passengers are actors. (The actors aren’t bad, but hey — you know the difference right away.) Still, the movie is going for the wide-view perspective the best documentaries can bring; Panahi drew on conversations he actually had with real people who took a ride in his car, sharing their daily lives and complaints. (Because of the restricted nature of the film, only Panahi is identified among the cast members.)
He drives superstitious old sisters carrying goldfish in a bowl to a sacred spring; an enterprising salesman of bootleg DVDs (the only way for Iranians to see Western movies, from blockbusters to Woody Allen); a female friend who has served jail time and, like Panahi, gone on hunger strike in prison; and the director’s young niece, who is trying to make a short film as a school assignment.
Her teacher’s rules for the movie delineate some of the everyday censorship imposed on art. Women and men must not share scenes, male characters’ shouldn’t wear Western-style neckties, heroes should be named after Islamic saints, and especially, “sordid reality” (in other words, reality) must be avoided as a subject matter.
Panahi himself is all about reality in a movie that builds a quiet, unexpected power. He shows us a culture where a black market is vital, and theft is a matter-of-fact event in lives lived on the edge of poverty. Interestingly, cameras are everywhere in Tehran — Panahi’s own, his niece’s, and security cams. There is a double edge to their presence. They can be powerful tools of expression, but also an official means of intimidation.
“There are realities [the government] don’t want shown,” he tries to explain to his niece, and you can sense his slow-burn despair on realizing that the young girl doesn’t yet understand that the world she is casting a wider eye upon is not the free world she believes it to be.
Labyrinth of Lies. With Alexander Fehling, André Szymanski, Friederike Becht. Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli. Rated R. In German with subtitles. 124 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi. A drama written, directed by and starring Panahi. In Persian with subtitles. Unrated. 82 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.