While there is a great deal of controversy over how much the average German citizen knew about the concentration camps that lay hundreds of feet away from their farms and villages, there is little controversy over how much they were willing to admit: Nothing. Until 1963, when Fritz Bauer, the Hessian State Attorney General, initiated the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, in which 22 lower-ranking SS officers who served at Auschwitz were tried according to German criminal law. Giulio Ricciarelli pays homage to Fritz Bauer and the young attorneys who prosecuted the case in Labyrinth of Lies, Germany’s Official Selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. •Availability: Opens nationwide September 30. •Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck PR, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Most people don’t know about the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Can you talk about their significance and why they attracted you as a subject for a feature film?
GR: I must admit I didn’t know about them until I started working on the film. Amazingly, they are not known in Germany; they’re unknown all over the world. The historical importance of this Auschwitz trial—we’re talking 1963—is that it forced German society to look at the crimes of the past. Before that, for almost eighteen years, everybody tried to sweep the Holocaust under the rug, to deny it, to not talk about it. You had a young generation growing up who’d never heard the word. Before working on the film, my perception of German history was that there was the Second World War, there was the Holocaust, and then in 1945, Germany started dealing with its past. The truth is there were almost two decades of denial and negation. These two decades were ended by the trial. And these two decades are forgotten, so I found that an incredibly important and timeless story for today.
It was also the first time a country put its own soldiers on trial. That’s a given for democracies today, but it was unheard of before the trial, so I felt that historically it was quite an important moment in German history, probably the most important moment after the Second World War. The fact that it is forgotten is unbelievable to me.
DT: Your name is Italian. Would you mind clarifying your background?
GR: I have an Italian father who was born in Italy, but I have a German mother, and I moved to Germany when I was four. I grew up bilingual, and I feel both. I feel Italian and I feel German.
DT: You cowrote and directed the film. What kind of research did you do?
GR: Today there’s a huge amount of material that you can access; all the testimonies are online. We worked very closely with the Fritz Bauer Institute and the University of Frankfurt. They read every draft and saw three rough cuts of the film, always commenting on it. The most important thing for us was to have an historical stamp of approval, so it was very important to work very closely with historians on this. We did extensive reading, and we worked very closely with two of the original prosecutors from the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, Joachim Kugler and Gerhard Wiese. We basically started talking to anybody who was alive and conscious in the ’50s to get a glimpse, because you never know where there’s an idea for a scene or a dialogue.
DT: What kind of questions did you ask Mr. Kugler and Mr. Wiese, who actually worked on the trial?
GR: We had an interesting concept. Historically, we were very precise. However, the character of Johann, the prosecutor in our film, is actually a composite of the three real-life prosecutors. We took liberties with his emotional life, so of course we asked the original prosecutors how it felt to be somebody doing this kind of work, this kind of research, at that time. These are men of the ’50s, so we had to be very sensitive to hear the little glimpses of emotion they would throw out; these are not men who talk about their emotions. Gerhard Wiese, who is now 87, said, “Well, it was a job and I did my job.” When you start talking to them more and more, though, you realize it was emotionally exhausting. For almost ten years Gerhard was researching these trials on Auschwitz while there was a country around him that was basically booming; it was “the economic miracle.” Gerhard told me, “My friends would say, ‘What are you doing now?’ and I would say, ‘Still working on Auschwitz.’” His life work was basically forgotten, as was Fritz Bauer’s, but one of the unsuspected gifts of the film was that Gerhard, at age 87, got the recognition he never got. He was at the opening night of the film in Frankfurt, and there was a standing ovation for him. He told me his grandchildren said, “You know what? Our grandfather’s a hero.” That was amazing.
DT: You mentioned the fact that the character of Johann is a composite of the three real-life prosecutors. What difficulties did that approach present? I imagine in some ways it was also liberating.
GR: Yes. If you’re making a historic film and you tell only the facts, you will not make a good film, because film has its own laws of dramatic structure. What often happens is that people start inventing or moving things up in history to make the story dramatic. We were very clear that we did not want to do that, because the most important thing to us was actually telling the atmosphere of Germany in the ’50s, because if you want to understand the historical dimension of the trial, you have to understand the atmosphere of denial that came before that. From a filmmaker’s point of view that is quite hard to get across, because we’re talking about the best-known crime of humanity, the Holocaust. Auschwitz has become a symbol of evil, and we were taking people into a time in Germany when that was not the case.
We don’t have an outer dramatic structure. Our dramatic structure is actually the emotional journey of the main character, Johann. He starts out very black-and-white, sitting on a high moral horse, and it’s a journey to humility, basically. In the end he becomes the right man to do this trial…he has faced his own family, he has faced his own weakness. When he realizes that his father was a Party member, he denies it. He does what everybody else does even though he’s been so obsessed about the trial.
With that concept, you can then be really free. Emotional life is not history, it’s an invention, and it’s very clear that the dramatic arc is the inner life of this character. It allows us to be very precise with the facts without playing around with history, starting to invent meetings that never took place, or moving things up, or inventing a kidnapping, or a blackmail or things that didn’t happen, because the actual trial, as historically important as it was, was not a dramatic thing.
DT: In the scene where the survivors reveal for the first time what they went through at Auschwitz, you didn’t use sound. I found that incredibly moving. Why did you decide to do it that way? Also, you spoke to real-life survivors as part of your research. Did their stories influence how you shot that scene?
GR: This is a core question to the film. There is a discussion in Holocaust filmography about what you should show and what you shouldn’t show when you make a film that in any way touches the Holocaust. In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann basically proclaimed you should not show. He didn’t use any documentary footage; he just used witnesses.
I feel that there’s one aspect to this discussion that is overlooked, and that is time. There was a television series with Meryl Streep in the ’70s called Holocaust. It was the first time such a film was seen in Germany. It had an enormous impact, so making a film that re-created [scenes from the camps] had merit at that time. Today, in 2015, you’re making a film for an audience that is filled with images—iconic images, horrible images—and has the whole story very present. I felt that as filmmakers, we had to be bold in the sense of refraining from actually re-creating a scene from the camp, like in a flashback, but also from re-creating actual testimony. An audience knows this is an actor, in a costume, who’s been directed by the director, and he’s acting as if he was there. I felt that today in 2015 you cannot do that anymore.
The closest we get to actual testimony in the film is when the character of the painter talks about his children [who were murdered in the camps], but that is not something he witnessed. He says, “And then they told me what Mengele did to twins,” so that is also not direct testimony. Regarding these moments, the concept of the film was that we weren’t making a film about the Holocaust; we were making a film about how Germany dealt with the Holocaust. We needed the Holocaust and the horror of it in the film, but every time the movie has that, it’s a canvas for the emotions of the audience. The filmmaking aspect of it was more like leaving it up to the audience to fill in their own stories. We felt that would be much stronger than if we tried to re-create it in any way.
There’s a deeper psychological explanation. When I was eight, somebody brought pictures from Auschwitz to school. You already have a worldview by the time you’re eight, and I was devastated. I was destroyed. I could not believe it. The whole world kind of crumbled, because I couldn’t match everything I thought about the world to these pictures. Interestingly, with all the research we did, we had the very basic experience of not comprehending what actually happened there… I know what happened there, but it’s like you cannot grasp it, you cannot digest it, you cannot deal with it in a way. This was also something that I felt needed to be in the film, and we did it by refraining from using sound. In the scene with the witnesses, they weren’t even actors, they were just extras. Everybody had forty-five minutes on camera, and we improvised. There was no sound, so they could be really open. We just worked to get these moments that we could use in a montage.
There is an even simpler example. We refer to a picture made by the character of the painter right after Auschwitz. It’s called The Angel of Death. The production department came to me and said, “Giulio, what are we going to do? Who is going to paint this?” I said, “We’re not going to do anything, because anything we do will be less strong than what the audience has in their minds.” If I tell you somebody painted a picture right after Auschwitz, you will have an image and an emotion in your head, and if I then show you what I think the picture is, you will be disappointed. So again, that’s also a point where we just see his reaction to it but we don’t see the actual painting.
DT: The trial represented a turning point in Germany, but to be quite honest, even today there are young Germans who know nothing about the Holocaust. I’m wondering whether the trial simply exchanged ignorance for denial?
GR: I grew up in the German system, and I was taught extensively about the Holocaust. I visited a camp in school, and I would say there is a clear political decision to really teach it to children, teach it in school, do films like my film, have memorials. I would say that if today there’s still somebody who’s ignorant, then it’s an active ignorance. It’s somebody really turning their head and actively walking away from what he’s taught, because it is taught in schools. I’ve traveled a lot with this film, and I think there’s a general recognition that Germany really is trying… There is no one hundred percent, it’s always an attempt, but I think people recognize that Germany really is trying to deal with its past. But that all started in 1963, not 1945.
Copyright © Director Talk 2015