There is considerable irony in the fact that Giulio Ricciarelli’s 2014 film “Labyrinth of Lies” which pleads for the preserving of painful memories has received so little attention since its release two years ago.
The movie is based on the true story of events leading up to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials using a young fictionalized public prosecutor Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) as the main character.
Early in the film, Radmann learns of the horrors of Auschwitz from the real life German journalist Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski). With the support of his superior, the German Judge Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), Radmann launches an investigation into former Nazis and brings Auschwitz camp personnel to trial in 1963, beginning a process in which Germans began to uncover and face the horrors of the Holocaust.
Near the end of the film, after he has resigned as public prosecutor, Radmann stands with Gnielka outside the barbed wire at Auschwitz talking about Radmann’s resignation:
Gnielka: What about the trial? How can you give it all up?
Radmann: I always wanted to fight for the good cause. But I don’t know what that is anymore. How can I try another person? If I had been there… I don’t know what I would have done.
Gnielka: You’re missing the point, Johann. Look around. What do you seen?
Gnielka: No, you see a meadow. Trees, barracks, a fence. Auschwitz is the stories that happened here and are buried here. Without the trial these stories will be forgotten.
Radmann: There is no appropriate punishment for what happened here.
Gnielka: It’s not about punishment. It’s about the victims, about their stories.
There is no such thing as “appropriate punishment” or justice in the face of Auschwitz. There are no scales that can be balanced to put right the wrongs that have been done in so many of the horrific chapters of human history.
Trials cannot bring justice; but they can help to preserve memory. And we remember in order that we might live differently.
When Radmann returns to the public prosecutors office, his superior asks,
Why have you come back?
Because the only response to Auschwitz is to do the right thing yourself.
Every day is a challenge to answer Auschwitz. The violence, genocide, injustice, and destruction that litter the story of the human community stand as a stark challenge to every person living to ask ourselves what direction our behaviour, our attitudes, our thoughts, and our words are tending.
Every decision we make is preparing the world for greater harm or greater good. When we choose gentleness, we are building a more gentle world. When we choose prejudice of any sort, we are creating a world in which the possibility of horror is increased. There are no irrelevant choices.
No one starts out to become a war criminal. We get there by small increments, tiny choices. Careless words build upon one another to move us in a destructive direction.
Just as there can be no justice in the face of Auschwitz, there is also no way to make the vicious events of that terrible chapter of our history into some edifying morality tale. But we can allow our knowledge and the truth we see in the stories of our past, to motivate us to make different choices in the present. In this way perhaps not all hope will be lost and the human community may move in tiny increments towards greater goodness and light.
nb: at the end of his excellent book Nazism and War, Richard Bessel concludes,
In Germany after 1945, Nazism was buried in a double sense: it was buried as a political movement and an ideology capable of mobilizing mass support, and it was buried in public memory. Through the horrors of 1944-45, Nazi Germany was transformed into armes Deutschland – ‘poor German’ – to be pitied rather than reviled. In their own eyes, Germans emerged as victims of war, not perpetrators of Nazism. It would take at least a generation before this perception could be challenged effectively. 181, 182