This morning, Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival announced its GEMS 2016 Lineup. Like last year, the mini film festival will offer an array of films that will satisfy connoisseurs of world cinema, fans of music and those looking for a sneak peak at films that will surely go on to be Oscar contenders.

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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.


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.)

Though his new film follows some colorful characters, as can be expected by David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook marks a notable downshift for the director. His career highlight remains a truly artful film on kookiness, society, consumerism and even transcendentalism: I ♥ Huckabees. His earlier films, Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, even the Clooney/Wahlberg vehicle Three Kings, all blended obsessions to twisted heights. But I ♥ Huckabees captured  existentialist humor with a wry sense of wit. His last film, the Fighter, revealed a tonal change for the director, entering an earthly true story, which handed him some extraordinary characters. It’s no wonder two of its actors (Christian Bale and Melissa Leo) won well-deserved supporting Oscar® awards.

Now comes Silver Linings Playbook, based on the first novel by Matthew Quick. Long before arriving in wide release this weekend, the film had received major buzz and praise during film festivals mostly for a restrained and humble performance by Bradley Cooper. He plays Pat, a man who has served time at a mental hospital trying to readjust to life outside. His character undergoes the usual idealistic sympathy set-up trope of dramatic irony in these types of movies:  He finds sneaky ways to keep medication from going down his throat. At his last day in the hospital, surrounded by fellow twitchy crazies, including Chris Tucker, Cooper, Weaver and Tucker in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Image courtesy of the Weinstein Companywho reappears throughout the film almost like a phantom, providing exhilarating comic relief, Pat does not seem to accept his own mental instability. His coping mechanism outside then turns out to be a power word (Excelsior!) he learned during therapy that reminds him to find the silver lining in any negativity encountered as he stumbles to reconnect with friends and family. Pat’s main motivation, however, is to get back with his ex-wife who has a restraining order against him after a violent incident when he caught her cheating on him in the couple’s shower. It’s all a very fine line for an actor to walk, and Cooper ultimately fails to infuse the character with enough dynamism to make him memorable.

Despite the trite situations characterizing him, Pat only barely appears sympathetic. The character’s single-minded drive keeps him rather inaccessible, creating a perspective that can only seem condescending to the movie audience looking in on his life. Compared to other crazies on the big screen, Pat becomes a rather slight crazy. It makes one wonder if, by the end of this year’s Oscar® campaign season, whether Cooper can make an impact beyond the Weinstein hype-machine that has already begun pushing him. The brief opening scenes in the mental hospital beg for unfair comparisons to Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for which Nicholson won the Oscar® award. Then your mind may drift to other crazies cooped up in madhouses. Cooper is certainly nowhere near as interesting as either Brad Pitt or even Bruce Willis were in 12 Monkeys, a transporting mixture of madness and time travel. Pitt received an Oscar® nomination for the role that year but lost to another great crazy played by Kevin Spacey for the Usual Suspects (and, to an unofficial extent, for his role in Se7en that same year).

Those performances in mind, Cooper should only muster a shrug in comparison. Plus, in Silver Linings, he has to play against another man of great lunatics: Robert De Niro, who is indelibly linked to Travis Bickel (Taxi Driver) and, for some, Max Cady (Cape Fear).Weaver and De Niro in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Image courtesy of the Weinstein Company Both, once again, Oscar®-nominated roles. Playing a different type of loon, as Pat’s OCD football-fanatic father Pat Sr., you better believe De Niro has to keep it low-key in order not to steal Cooper’s thunder. But guess who plays his mother in the movie? Another Oscar® nominee for psychopath: Jacki Weaver, though in Silver Linings, she plays Dolores with frayed-nerve but grounded charm. Dolores is the one person trying to hold the family together and the only one who does not seem self-absorbed in madness.

The family dynamic in Silver Linings Playbook gives new meaning to dysfunction, as Dolores struggles to keep father and son from burning out their short fuses, seemingly walking on eggshells between the two. Her husband seems to care most about the Philadelphia Eagles winning games and treats his namesake like some good luck charm above all else. Pat Jr. meanwhile is seemingly left to suffer his bipolar disorder in isolation. It’s an inward performance above all, despite some outbursts. This is not some scene-chewing crazy, which normally attracts Academy Award recognition.

It does not help that the film’s story is also a slight affair with some muddled intentions, climaxing at a dance competition that recalls Little Miss Sunshine, except the children are adults acting like children (again, condescending and— hopefully— unrelatable to an adult audience).Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Image courtesy of the Weinstein CompanyThe film opens with too many jokes at the expense of those with mental disorders to expect the viewers to sincerely care about these characters. When Pat Sr. lays a brutal beating on his son for no reason a sane person would do it, many in the theater where I saw it seemed confused by how the humor suddenly evaporated. These characters should have the viewer’s sympathy, but it never taps into their pathos in a way that does not seem condescending. There is something sad about watching punching bags duke it out.

This clash of characters also appears in the bond Pat forms with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who is coming down from the end of an outbreak of nymphomania after her police officer husband died in the line of duty. It seems to be the talk of the neighborhood. “Yes, I’m Tommy’s whore widow,” she says when introduced to Pat at a mutual friend’s house over dinner. TiffanyJennifer Lawerence and Bradley Cooper in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Image courtesy of the Weinstein Company is the embodiment of the Freudian notion of Eros and Thanatos, and I would dare say Lawrence gets the meatier role, channeling grieving with manic energy. Lawrence plays Tiffany with a charming straight-forward quality, a person who can give a damn what anyone thinks, as she tries to embrace life after death while still struggling with the pull and snap of the range of emotions that come after that. Her character garners more sympathy, and her portrayal deserves more recognition during award season consideration than Cooper.

Meanwhile, Pat seems obsessed to get back together with his ex-wife. Despite the jogs through the neighborhood Tiffany invites herself to with Pat, and Pat’s decision to join her in a dance competition if she assist in a ploy to get him in touch with his ex, Pat remains single-minded in his desire to make his ex-marriage work. There is a charming chemistry between the two lost lead characters, in the end, as you await the inevitable. But along with that, the film illustrates the phantoms we fall for within the people who we think we know. It’s a difficult thing to portray with humor, and often in Silver Linings that notion becomes lost in the mix of an attempt to make it all so wacky. So, enjoy the ride into a love founded upon shared madness. Some in the audience may feel better for themselves, others will wonder if there is any hope for these people who seem in a consistent state of denial, up to the film’s overly pat, trite conclusion.

Hans Morgenstern

The Silver Linings Playbook is Rated R (people curse and refer to sex) and runs 122 min. It opens in wide release today. The Weinstein Company invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)