Holocaust Remorse: Giulio Ricciarelli on the Making of 'Labyrinth of Lies'

Labyrinth of Lies, a new Holocaust-themed movie, the German entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, takes place in the era after World War II, when 22 "ordinary" German men who committed anti-human crimes at Auschwitz were brought to justice in Frankfurt. Filmmaker Giulio Ricciarelli, a Milan-born German from Munich is proud to say that Germany is the only country to have sought legal action for the murder of Jews, as the citizens of his country increasingly became aware of what went on under the Nazi regime. Over cappuccinos at the Regency Hotel in mid-September, we talked about his film, based upon the true history of these trials.

What is the basis of the story of Labyrinth of Lies?

Have you ever heard of Fritz Bauer? Fritz Bauer is forgotten in Germany too. This is a true story. Fritz Bauer was a Jew in exile. Fritz Bauer was in a socialist camp in 1933 and came back from Scandinavia after the war. He worked to exonerate resistance fighters, and then went after Germans. In my film, his character [the excellent Gert Voss] says, referring to his place in post-war German society, "I came from exile. I am still in exile." To me, these people are heroes. They took a stand: to force Germany to look at itself. In addition, Fritz Bauer helped the Israelis get Eichmann. I knew this was an important story.

How did you hear about Fritz Bauer, and what attracted you to his story?

I was trained as an actor but was looking for a project to direct. A producer saw an item in the newspaper and brought it to me. My first reaction, I did not believe the story. I am half Italian. I moved to Germany when I was 4. I grew up in an atmosphere of denial. This is a vivid gestalt: for children and grandchildren of people traumatized during the war, the trauma is passed on. Families don't want to know about the generation of their parents and grandparents. Families on both sides kept it quiet.

How did you prepare, and what did you yourself learn?

I spoke to two prosecutors from the trial. One went to law school after the war, after being drafted into the war at 17. There was lots of propaganda. In 1962, he was assigned to this trial, given a book by Rudolf Hess -- that was the only book, and told to read up on what happened in this place. Today Auschwitz is a symbol of all the camps. They were not ashamed at the trial. They showed no remorse; the perpetrators were standing around laughing. The victims who testified were traumatized. There was a code of silence. I created the character of the young man, Johann Radmann [Alexander Fehling] from the two prosecutors. I wanted the character to be innocent.

Does he represent the myth of The Good German, like Oskar Schindler?

Why do you say myth? Fritz Bauer was a good German, and a Jew. The tendency was to depict Germany as a fairy tale: a couple of bad guys and everyone else is a victim. My film shows there were so many who contributed to Auschwitz. My main character Radmann goes through a crisis. Denial. He's not better than anybody else.

Talk about the film in relation to other German films.

When I started working on this I realized that the war is still a forming factor for Germany today. German movies are not emotional, but we also had Fritz Lang, and expressionism. German filmmaking is often spare. Not mine. I am Italian.

Two of your characters travel to Poland, to say Kaddish at Auschwitz, which you show as a barren field. Clearly this is not Auschwitz today. How did you imagine Auschwitz?

You are not allowed to film in Auschwitz. We created Auschwitz with pictures. Two characters go to Auschwitz to say Kaddish for twin girls who were murdered by Dr. Mengele, and maybe for all who perished. This is important: the turning point of the film is an act of humility. Prayer. There is no such thing as apology. You can pray. Why do we have to tell stories about Auschwitz? So that we can do the right thing. No redemption is possible.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.