Beyond the silence

Giulio Ricciarelli on Fifties Germany and Labyrinth Of Lies.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Labyrinth Of Lies director Giulio Ricciarelli
Labyrinth Of Lies director Giulio Ricciarelli Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Giulio Ricciarelli's Oscar shortlisted Best Foreign Language Film candidate, Labyrinth Of Lies, stars Alexander Fehling of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds fame, with Johannes Krisch (Frauke Finsterwalder's Finsterworld and Götz Spielmann's Revanche), André Szymanski, Hansi Jochmann, Friederike Becht (Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt), Johann von Bülow and Mathis Reinhardt, and is dedicated to the late great stage actor, Gert Voss.

"Heimatfilm", Marc Rothemund's Sophie Scholl: The Final Days on the White Rose shot by Martin Langer, Vico Torriani, Caterina Valente and how the costume design of Aenne Plaumann (Goodbye Lenin!), a La Strada poster, design by Manfred Döring and Janina Jaensch were orchestrated by "card players", gender roles in the Fifties, and what's in a title.

Marlene Wondrak (Friederike Becht) with Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling)
Marlene Wondrak (Friederike Becht) with Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling)

Ricciarelli in his debut feature captures a mood of cold-sweat exhilarated revitalisation, with mid-century architecture, punch bowl parties and La Strada posters on the wall, as well as the period's casual sexism. One by one, the characters' past is revealed - after all, in the Fifties, everybody was somewhere during the war. Labyrinth Of Lies probes into the era when for many citizens who lived through the war, oblivion was bliss and the economic miracle replaced soul searching.

The story begins in Frankfurt in 1958, where we meet Johann Radmann (Fehling) a young prosecutor whose investigations lead to the 1963-1965 Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials. Radmann, a composite of three actual prosecutors - one of them, Gerhard Wiese, who consulted on the film - starts out knowing very little about his country's recent history.

Secret service agent Fischer (Mathis Reinhardt) gets to have an unusual sense of humor, second prosecutor Otto Haller (Johann von Bülow) a convincing change of heart. Secretary Schmittchen (Hansi Jochmann), who starts out as a German comedy cliché, soon puts those to shame who reduced her this way. Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), survivor, witness, artist, gets the ball rolling and the marvelous Gert Voss in his last role gives the necessary dignity to the unsung real-life hero State Attorney General Fritz Bauer.

Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann
Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann

Marlene Wondrak (Friederike Becht), Johann's love interest, is busy getting her fashion studio started and many of his colleagues and acquaintances suggest to let sleeping dogs lie. Ricciarelli gives his actors plenty of opportunity to shine and surprise us.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I liked what you did with regards to gender. The very non-PC way women were addressed, you show well by the language used. When we first see Marlene [Becht], the judge comments about her "pretty little head," for example.

Giulio Ricciarelli: It's very patronising.

AKT: Very. Also the character of Schmittchen [Jochmann] - already the name of the secretary - she is such a German film history type. Characters like her have been around in films of the Thirties, the "Heimatfilm" of the Fifties. You resurrected that type and then gave her some personality. She is crying, but she also knows what she is doing and what is important. Can you talk a bit about these gender comments you sprinkled throughout?

Schmittchen (Hansi Jochmann), Johann Radmann, Fritz Bauer, Josef Bichinsky (Robert Mika) Hermann Langbein (Lukas Miko)
Schmittchen (Hansi Jochmann), Johann Radmann, Fritz Bauer, Josef Bichinsky (Robert Mika) Hermann Langbein (Lukas Miko)

GR: First of all, today they are entertaining in a way. When the judge says, "if you must drive a car, you should at least concentrate." Imagine a judge saying that today to a woman! It's important to make people understand how different those times were. There is also heard on the radio that there was a law passed that women are allowed to work without their husband's consent. But, they still must fulfill their household duties. In the end, and that's what the radio commentator says, the husband still had to give his consent. And Schmittchen is in a way the heart of the story.

She's the emotion. She's also important how this trial impacted the population. Another important character was Haller [von Bülow], the second prosecutor, who was a classical idiot in the beginning, who has all these ready-made excuses and then in the end when he is confronted with it, he becomes one of the good ones. These movements inside the characters we tried to give to almost everyone. Or the young maid who gives him information [about Mengele] and when she comes she has a black eye. She started to poke around and got hit. Or the young agent from the BKA.

AKT: Fischer [Mathis Reinhardt]? He had the most brilliant lines. You gave him some of the best dialogue. He was one of the most surprising characters.

Johann Radmann with Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss)
Johann Radmann with Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss)

RG: These are young Germans who do the right thing and they pay a high price for it. That's why Fischer has to be suspended. The BKA where he works, which is like the German FBI , that was acknowledged, it was basically all Nazis.

AKT: I liked the dialogue in the car, when after the serious conversation, Radmann waits for Fischer to drive him and he explains that he has no time to do such a thing, that that was an excuse to talk. The film sparkles at this moment.

RG: Like a piece of music, I knew we had to have humour in it, too. So that people can breathe.

AKT: I also liked that the production design didn't have that dreaded look of 'we are staging now something from the Fifties'. It feels authentic with the punch bowl and the La Strada poster, but you don't overdo the iconic signifiers. I liked the simplicity of the fashion studio in the basement. It doesn't get too costume-y.

RG: First of all, we didn't have the money to stage everything. I started thinking, why do so many historical films seem staged? When they have the money, suddenly everything is 1950s. Everyone goes overboard. The truth is, that is not the reality how humans live. Maybe you live in a brownstone that's 100 years old and you go to the gym in a modern building and your office is in something of the Fifties. So we said, let's be like card players and have trumps in the locations that really sparkle. For example, the DA's office is just a dilapidated old building and then in the modern kitchen there is the Fifties.

Otto Haller (Johann von Bülow) with Johann Radmann
Otto Haller (Johann von Bülow) with Johann Radmann

AKT: There is an authenticity in the unique creation of a space.

RG: Thank you. I think that was also in the acting. Basically, the whole theme of my directing was - the story must speak for itself. When the audience, for example, says "oh, this is a great suit," then you are in trouble as a filmmaker. Or this is a great setting. You as a critic, you have this eye [for film!] but a normal audience will not think about it.

AKT: One of my favorite lines in your movie is: "We Germans should wear black for all eternity." Where did that line come from?

RG: Well, I'm trained as an actor. My dream for this film was to have the historical theme but very emotional scenes. He [Radmann] comes to her [Marlene] and is deeply wounded by the knowledge of what his father did. He is in despair, he is in love with her and at the same time he wants to destroy everything. If he stands for the young Germany - the generation in 68 when they confronted their parents - it must be devastating. Imagine being a grown man and finding out that your parents are murderers or witnesses to murders or they didn't do anything. It must destroy your world and that's the point he is at. That's why he is so aggressive. I love that scene.

Johann and Marlene
Johann and Marlene

AKT: I read it as more universal. Maybe that would have been a good idea. Prescribed mourning for the whole country, instead of some of that colorful ugliness… Anyway. For the English version two changes occurred in the title of your film. In The Labyrinth Of Silence became Labyrinth Of Lies. Silence becomes Lies and the 'in' is gone. Did you mind that?

RG: The original title was just Im Labyrinth (In the Labyrinth) - then The Maze Runner, a Hollywood blockbuster movie, had Labyrinth in the subtitle. So the distributor in Germany said we need more, we don't want to be confused with that film. And Labyrinth Of Lies is something basically the sales agent picked as a working title and they liked it and kept it. The French called it [Le] Labyrinthe Du Silence.

AKT: Because of the switch, you have to ask, is it silence or is it lies?

RG: I think it's both. Of course, Germany was living a lie. The whole Fifties, German culture, as you know, the "Heimatfilm", was so fake.

Labyrinth Of Lies
Labyrinth Of Lies

AKT: You include some music from that time, Vico Torriani and Caterina Valente.

RG: These were some of the better ones, actually.

AKT: Gert Voss who plays prosecutor-general Fritz Bauer is a wonderful theatre actor. You dedicated the film to him.

RG: It was his last part. He passed away. You know him from theatre because he didn't do film. He has a handful of parts and he never had this kind of a part in his life, I think. He was so happy to do it and so excited about the film. He never got to see it. I wanted to show him the rough cut when I was dubbing and he said, "No, no, no. I want to wait till it's finished."

AKT: Someone uses the metaphor at one point about capturing Eichmann and Mengele, calling it "shooting at two deer." The second one escapes. Is that a quote? Is the metaphor yours?

RG: That is something I invented. When the Mossad captured Eichmann, there was a huge uproar. There was a protest at the United Nations. There was a decision whom to capture first. I wanted to show this pragmatism. The reality is that Mengele died peacefully in Brazil in 1978. He could have been gotten by the Mossad, by the Germans.

Gert Voss as Fritz Bauer
Gert Voss as Fritz Bauer

AKT: The second surprise for me in the film was Mengele's trips after the war from Buenos Aires to Günzburg. Several times?

RG: Yes. He got divorced in Freiburg in the Fifties. He went skiing in Switzerland and the Frankfurt prosecutor's office called the Swiss and said "hold this man, he is a war criminal." The Swiss asked the BKA to give them a picture and the BKA said "we have nothing on the man." It wasn't true, they had plenty, but they wouldn't cooperate.

AKT: How was the reaction to the film in Germany, specifically?

RC: Sometimes in Germany, it's almost like the historical impact of the story overtakes the film. Der Spiegel wrote four pages and said 'oh, it's a wonderful movie" and then wrote four pages about the story. But as a filmmaker, I'm happy about that, actually.

AKT: The whole question about De-Nazification is interesting. What exactly did that entail? How effective was it and how effective was it meant to be? Somebody should make a film about that, no? What does De-Nazification mean, if educated people didn't know about Auschwitz?

RC: There was an amnesty law in the late Forties, beginning of the Fifties that Adenauer passed. Imagine, there was never any trial on anybody like a prosecutor or a judge and what they did during the war. The whole justice system was never put on trial.

Johann Radmann
Johann Radmann

AKT: Your cinematographer worked on Marc Rothemund's Sophie Scholl: The Final Days film, didn't he?

RC: Yes, Martin Langer.

AKT: I did an introduction and post-screening discussion for the film here in New York. The reactions were very strong to the film and quite controversial. Many people, especially younger people here had never heard of the White Rose… Back to your film. Connecting a love story with the historical story you are telling - I thought that's a very daring move.

RC: It was daring, yes. The film is very emotional, I think that's the Italian part because German cinema is also very scared of emotion. Tries to be almost neutral. The love story here is not only a love story. She is the other side of the coin of the young Germany. It must have been hard to work on this trial while all around you the country was blooming. We needed that as a force, as an energy in the film. The girl was not just to have a love story but she has an essential part in the drama.

AKT: The actor who plays Kirsch [Krisch] was also in Frauke Finsterwalder's film Finsterworld. He is very good.

RC: Oh, yes, he was in Finsterworld. Actually, that's where I got the idea to cast him. He was also in Revanche. It was [Oscar] nominated [Best Foreign Language Film] in 2009, an Austrian film. The character of Kirsch is as close as we get to a true literal testimony of Auschwitz. When the witnesses testify…

AKT: … you don't have sound, which is an interesting choice.

RC: The drama of his character is that he gives his children to Mengele because he is a doctor and then he says: "And then they told me…" what Mengele did with children. So his drama is that everything he hears, he imagines happening to his children.

The five films to receive nominations for Best Foreign Language Film will be announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on January 14, 2016, along with all the other Oscar nominations.

The Oscars will be handed out on February 28.

Read what Giulio Ricciarelli had to say about his research with Gerhard Wiese on the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, structuring the film and the challenges of painting an accurate picture of post-war Germany.

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