Switzerland is renowned for its delectable chocolate bars and candies, precision-made watches, exquisite ski resorts and magnificent alpine scenery. Having visited the country several times, I can attest to its superlative qualities.
Switzerland’s dark side is far less evident, but it emerges compellingly in Mike Shaerer’s six-part television series, Labyrinth of Peace, which will be screened online by the Calgary Jewish Film Festival from November 14-16 at 7 p.m.
Labyrinth of Peace unfolds in 1945, shortly after the end of World War II. Switzerland, a neutral power, profited handsomely from the war. As nearby European countries suffered terribly, Switzerland prospered, exporting its products, including weapons and munitions, to neighboring Germany. And in the lead up to the war and afterward, the Swiss government restricted the flow of Jewish refugees, particularly German Jews, into its territory.
In the opening scene of Labyrinth of Peace, viewers are introduced to a quintessential bourgeois family. Alfred (Urs Bosshardt) is the self-satisfied owner of a textile factory in dire need of modernization and new markets. His daughter, Klara (Annina Walt), is soon to be married to Johann (Max Hubacher), an ambitious and visionary young man who works for Alfred.
As the series unfolds, a German SS man claiming to be a Wehrmacht deserter sneaks across the border into Switzerland. In short order, a group of traumatized survivors from the Buchenwald concentration camp, all boys and teens, arrive at a Red Cross-supported residence in the bucolic countryside that has been set aside for their convalescence. Klara is employed there as a teacher.
Johann, having learned that Alfred’s health is failing, offers to take over the management of the textile mill. Johann is convinced that the future of the industry is in synthetic materials. Alfred’s wife, Lisbeth-Marie (Sylvia Rohrer), is skeptical and less than keen regarding Johann’s future role in the business.
Meanwhile, Johann’s brother, Egon (Dimitri Stapfer), a former border guard, is on the hunt for Nazi war criminals in Switzerland. He’s employed by a Swiss federal agency working in cooperation with the United States, which seeks their extradition. One of the suspects is a canny German lawyer/businessman who may have been a Nazi but now claims to have joined the anti-Nazi resistance movement.
The series shifts between two poles — Johann’s quest to persuade investors to pour capital into the textile plant, and Klara’s awakening to the Holocaust and personal involvement with two of the Jewish boys.
Thanks to a Swiss lawyer, Johann acquires the funds to modernize the factory and hire a German chemist who possesses the expertise to develop a synthetic thread. But much to his disgust, Johann discovers that one of the investors was a Nazi Party member during the Third Reich.
Klara, in the meantime, forms an emotional bond with Herschel (Jan Hrynkiewicz), a Jewish refugee of her approximate age, and Jenkele, the youngest refugee, whose parents may have been murdered in the Warsaw ghetto. Klara’s relationship with Herschel affects her marriage and creates difficulties with Johann’s doting mother.
Shaerer manages to fuse these disparate strands into a coherent and plausible narrative, while developing a strong story line linked to Egon. As he pursues Nazi war criminals, he meets Dorothy Rosenberg (Lou Strenger), an American foreign correspondent fluent in German who’s also hot on their trail.
The specter of latent antisemitism permeates several of the episodes.
Lisbeth-Marie, a bigot, is ardently pro-Nazi and doubts the veracity of the Holocaust. As the Jewish refugees settle into their quarters, they demand schooling and more substantial meals. Offended by their “cheeky” demands, a Swiss employee utters a veiled antisemitic comment. “What do you expect of them?” she says condescendingly. The demure daughter of the German chemist hurls an antisemitic epithet at Jenkele, embarrassing her parents, while a Swiss carpenter declines to accept Herschel as an apprentice solely because he’s Jewish.
As Egon edges closer to the truth, he expresses remorse about his position as a border guard who turned away desperate Jewish refugees. As for Johann, he begins to realize that some of the investors may be laundering dirty money, acquired by force from Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, through Alfred’s company.
With tensions boiling over, Klara reaches the conclusion that she may have erred in marrying Johann, while Johann gradually accommodates himself to his murky dealings with unscrupulous businessmen.
Once the Jewish boys are told they will be leaving the residence because it is closing, they must decide where to go. They can remain in Switzerland, settle somewhere else, or opt for Palestine. The choice is theirs to make.
Labyrinth of Peace skillfully recreates a transitional period in Swiss history which seems to have been shunted aside or forgotten. Shaerer, having selected a first-class cast to bring it to life, directs it with sensitivity and authority.