The slick outer veneer we refer to as Swiss neutrality blazes brightly, but if you get up close enough, you’ll begin to notice the cracks, and see the chunks that have become dislodged, the fruit of historical revisionism. “You Swiss are no different,” snaps a Jewish boy from a group who, shortly after the end of the war, takes refuge in one of the country’s facilities where the conditions (and the circumstances) would be far more suited to prisoners than to guests. And this feeling of purging the guilt of past deeds is ever-present throughout the action in ‘Labyrinth of Peace’, an ambitious European co-production premiered by Filmin this April.
Our story begins with a wedding between Klara, the daughter of a textile industrialist, and Johann, a boy from much more modest beginnings. Apparently, the boy has hit the jackpot with this blessed union, which enables him to get a foot on the social ladder. However, it soon becomes clear that the factory is not actually established on the solid grounding as everyone imagined, but instead is overly dependent on state subsidies that are about to dry up. But Johann is an ambitious man and believes that synthetic fiber is the future. Then, the factory patriarch falls ill, sparking Johann into action and to make his move. The young man’s eyes are firmly set on taking over management of the company. The boss’s bourgeois siblings of course, aren’t as sold on the idea and classism permeates every corner of the firm. Johann, his back against the wall, resorts to approaching some pretty unscrupulous war criminals. Meanwhile, Klara looks after the young Holocaust survivors the Red Cross has recently rescued, and an encounter with one particular individual will make her question everything she had ever learned from her own education, safely inside the class bubble, as their relationship grows in intensity.
The third party in disagreement is Egon. He has just returned from military service and joins the Attorney General’s office. As soon as he arrives, reality administers an open-handed slap in the face. They have arrested a Nazi deserter, given away by the farmer who had been employing him. When Egon interviews him alone in his cell, the ex-soldier explains that he’s well aware the system is turning a blind eye to the Nazis who arrive with money. The young man rejects the idea that his country could ever finance itself through such ill-gotten gains. However, curiosity gets the better of him and, as he begins to investigate further, he discovers a terrible truth: the real reason the farmer-come-whistleblower handed him over to the police was so he could get his hands on the money the Nazi had hidden in his humble accommodation.
The series is narrated with a bright (not glitzy) color palette, which further contrasts with the moral corruption stirring in the background in most scenes. The setting is excellently recreated and evidence of the significant investment behind the project, where everything from wardrobe to the lavishly furnished mansions, oozes money. But this money is stained with blood, as becomes clear to audiences right from episode 1. The alliance with Hitler’s Germany, obstacles to welcoming Jews fleeing persecution, laundering of Nazi money, concealment of war criminals… they’re all covered over the 6 one-hour episodes that fits the description of a slow-boil series like a glove: what starts out almost as a historical re-enactment style focused on the customs and manners of the period, soon begins twisting and turning as it slowly drifts into thriller-infested waters before conclusively exploding in the final episode.
The talent behind ‘Labyrinth of Peace’ is that of Petra Biondina Volpe, who in 2017 surprised everyone with ‘The Divine Order’, which won the audience award at the Tribeca Festival and was the Swiss representative in the Oscars race. On that occasion, Volpe was narrating another uncomfortable truth about her homeland of chocolate and the Matterhorn; Switzerland was one of the last countries in the world to approve universal suffrage. And, once again, Volpe delivers an authentic period fresco, only back then, it was to the backdrop of the 70’s. This time around, her intentions to deal with another uncomfortable home truth is the same. Proverbial Swiss neutrality comes out of the wash, not as a heroic act of rejecting Nazism, but instead as a recipe for compromise in the face of international pressure.
“For Switzerland, our war is beginning now”, comments one of the characters at the end of the first episode, confirming the country had become isolated politically and had lost its principal trading partner. ‘Labyrinth of Peace’ is the endeavor to chronicle this invisible war.