labyrinth-of-lies-2014-poster-1050x1556Having grown up with a German father who survived being drafted into the Wehrmacht to fight in World War II, films with German war themes interest me. My father was not shy about sharing his experiences in WWII, from being drafted at age 16 when his family tried to flee to Spain to using his skills in English to assistant U.S. forces entering Berlin (he saw the Americans as liberators and later renounced his German citizenship to become a U.S. citizen). One day I hope to write a book about this (as noted in this article: Bonding with the filmmakers of ‘The Book Thief’ over my father’s German WWII story), but for now, I still believe I have a lot to learn, as I found out while watching Labyrinth of Lies, Germany’s selection for the foreign-language film Oscar.

Set in late 1950s Germany, Labyrinth of Lies focuses on the level of ignorance the German people still had about the concentration camps, more than 10 years after the war. It’s well-known that the death camps, run by the SS, were secret to the public until the Russians and Americans marched into Germany 8to discover the horrors that lay beyond the barbwire fences. However, I never thought the widespread denial of these camps continued into the late ‘50s. This debut feature by Giulio Ricciarelli, examines the story of an ambitious young prosecutor, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), who wants to convict those who committed atrocities at Auschwitz, from Josef Mengele (a.k.a. “The Angel of Death”) on down to the camp’s guards.

For a debut feature, Labyrinth of Lies is a well-plotted, finely acted, tight movie. Ricciarelli is an actor first with loads of experience in German TV movies. It shows, but he also has a strong eye for theatrical compositions. The movie feels like a big scale “Masterpiece Theater” production. The scenes are compact and always move the drama forward, be it Radmann’s quest to do his daunting task, his love affair with a young seamstress (Friederike Becht) or his friendship with a know-it-all journalist (André Szymanski). But then there is also grandeur to many scenes, from the new, sterile buildings like the U.S. fort holding the overwhelming stacks of records from the concentration camps or the vast green, countryside of Germany.

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The film’s title holds a reflective connotation that speaks to our enlightened perspective on this difficult time in the 20th century but also refers to the state of denial of the German people during this era. As Simon (Johannes Krisch), a deeply traumatized Auschwitz survivor hiding a horrifying back story, tells Radmann, “This country wants sugar coating. It doesn’t want truth.” I will not deny that the film feels a bit heavy-handed at times. The attorney general warns Radmann, “Be careful this is a labyrinth. Don’t lose yourself in it.” At a low point, Radmann staggers in the streets at night in a drunken stupor calling everyone he sees Nazis. As he grows more obsessed with his crusade, Radmann suffers nightmares of being one of Mengele’s experiments. But the film tells a stark story in an entertaining way that will keep viewers hooked for its 124-minute running time. Ricciarelli maintains a consistent pace, and doesn’t make Radmann a pure hero. He does pay a price for his obsession in his personal life. The production value for this period piece and the performances also never falter. It’s a kind of historical drama that will draw in more than history buffs, even though it may not necessarily win Germany the Oscar prize.

Hans Morgenstern

Labyrinth of Lies runs 124 minutes, is in German with English subtitles and is rated R (for gruesome images, cursing and sex). It opens in our South Florida area exclusively at Tower Theater this Friday, Oct. 30. UPDATE: it is now also playing at O Cinema Miami Beach (visit this link for tickets). It’s playing only at a few other theaters in the U.S. To see if it’s in your city, check this link. Sony Pictures Classics provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. They also provided all images here.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I do have an affection for period movies (see my review of Mozart’s Sister), but they need to offer something broader to say about today’s society to hold any interest (again, see my review of Mozart’s Sister). Or be as brilliantly entertaining as that other Mozart movie, Milos Foreman’s Amadeus from 1984.

Young Goethe in Love offers neither of those aspects. It follows Johann Goethe (Alexander Fehling), the late 18th century German writer who would gain fame ever-lasting for one of the greatest works about a man’s deal with the devil, Faust. But this young Goethe proves a tough subject to care about in his pre-fame career as a muck-about lawyer, as depicted in this movie. I do not know much about Goethe, having only read Faust as part of the required readings of a Romance and Language class during my undergrad studies, so anything I have learned of Goethe’s biography, I learned from Young Goethe in Love.

Prior to Faust, it seems Goethe suffered one rejection after another from publishers for his romantic poetry. Meanwhile, he flunked out of law school, but his well-connected father (Henry Hübchen) found him a job working at a court in a small town, anyhow. It soon becomes apparent Goethe has not changed his ways, as he finds a drinking buddy in a co-worker (Volker Bruch). After both spend a night out on the town, they are found passed out in their quarters by their superior. During his night out, however, Goethe will meet Charlotte Buff (Miriam Stein), the love who will inspire his first great work, the Sorrows of Young Werther.

It takes a while for anything to happen in the film by Philipp Stölzl. There is dancing, drinking, horseback riding, skinny dipping, fencing and dueling. The design, including costume and sets, show a high production value. It’s all nice stuff that will keep many a period-movie fan interested. But despite Goethe’s conflict with his father and his superiors and the flirtation with Charlotte, the real drama of feeling something at stake for these characters does not happen until an hour into the movie, long after one should stop caring about the proceedings.

Charlotte, one of many girls in a huge family struggling to make ends meet, finally falls for Goethe once he recites his poetry to her. But, it turns out, her father (Burghart Klaußner) would prefer to see her marry the much more stable and well-established Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu), Goethe’s superior at the court. Though the drama picks up here, it is too little too late. About a half-hour later, the film’s all too neat and tidy resolution pops like the bubble of effervescent fizz that this movie feels like.

The acting is sincere, but it all feels as if one predictable dot is being attached to another, and everyone is following the motions. The film looks great, despite the drab color palette, but it will take more than a candlelit world of nice design to get the audience emotionally and curiously invested. That said, those looking for a nicely dressed piece of period filmmaking with a romantic story at its heart, who also do not mind the lack of deeper motivations, might find something in Young Goethe in Love to pass the time with.

It’s not like you go to a film entitled Young Goethe in Love, known in its native Germany simply as Goethe!, for insight into its titular author. This is as much a biopic as Shakespeare in Love was one on William Shakespeare. But there is an inherent problem of Goethe’s relevance to the English-speaking crowd as an icon of romance. This film does little, if any favors to make this romantic side of Goethe rise above the shadow of Faust, a work more synonymous with the name Goethe. A smarter labyrinth of a movie could have been brewed out of that, but it would have called on some immense skills from a director, who here is only concerned about a little love story that has been told many times over already.

Young Goethe in Love is unrated, runs 102 minutes, and opens today, Friday, Dec. 16, in South Florida exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. It is in German with English subtitles. See the cinema’s website for screening times, which vary by day. It expands to the Tower Theater in Miami on Dec. 30 and then, in Broward County, at the Cinema Paradiso, on Jan. 3. If you live outside South Florida, the film’s official website lists screening dates across the US (you can also download the full press notes and see the movie’s trailer).

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)