Sometimes there’s a downside to staying out of things.
Everybody knows Switzerland was neutral during World War II; neutrality is pretty much their whole deal. While Europe was being torn apart around them, they provided a safe haven for both escaped prisoners of war and Nazi gold. Labyrinth of Peace asks a question that’s surprisingly topical for a drama set after World War II: how do you reconnect with the wider world after a disaster that largely passed you by?
For Klara (Annina Walt), her fiancé Johann (Max Hubacher) and his brother Egon (Dimitri Stapfer), things look bright. The war is over and Switzerland escaped largely unscathed. Now that they can once again do business with Europe, Klara’s family firm (they’re in textiles) seems set to start making some serious money. As for Egon, his military service is over and a cushy job at the Attorney General’s office awaits. Switzerland’s neutrality has paid off, and now it’s time for its citizens to reap the rewards.
Or perhaps not. Johann soon discovers that the business he’s married into is on shaky ground, heavily reliant on war-era subsidies designed to prop up local businesses – and with the war over, the free money is about to dry up. Johann has a vision for the future, and that vision is artificial fibres; unfortunately the management of the firm takes a dim view of both his ideas and him. Klara might love him for who he is, but his class is always going to be a black mark against his name with the old money that runs things.
When his father-in-law (Urs Bosshardt) falls ill, Johann sees his chance – but if he’s really going to seize it, he’s going to need help. And after the war, the kinds of people willing to help a man like him are very dodgy indeed (two words: war criminals).
Any dreams Egon might have had of settling into a straightforward government job are dashed pretty much on day one with the arrest of a Nazi deserter, handed over by the farmer he was working for. Egon’s job is supposedly to hunt down Nazi fugitives, but his interrogation of his first capture uncovers a dark not-so-secret: if you have money, the supposedly neutral Swiss are more than happy to let former Nazis sneak in.
Egon’s an idealist. The idea that his own country would sell out for cash shocks him, and learning the farmer only handed over the fugitive so he could keep the Nazi’s money for himself makes it worse. Either Egon can become part of the problem, or double down and commit to tracking down Nazis wherever they might be – or whoever they might be in business with.
Over six episodes, Labyrinth of Peace gradually becomes more of a thriller, but it’s the moral complexity of the early episodes that really makes it memorable. War stories are usually fairly black and white, with any shades of grey only operating on an individual level (this Nazi seems okay, that American likes killing too much, war makes monsters of us all). Here though, there’s a refreshing willingness to grapple with the past: Nazis had money, the Swiss were willing to deal with them, and sitting out the war meant that some of the war’s harsher lessons passed them by.
This comes through strongest in Klara’s storyline. Initially she seems to have the most morally straightforward role as part of the local Red Cross team taking care of survivors from the Buchenwald concentration camp. But she soon finds herself drawn to one in particular, Herschel (Jan Hrynkiewicz), humanising the problems they face just as the relationship between the refugees and the Swiss locals takes an ugly turn.
It soon becomes clear that despite what Europe has just been through, anti-Semitism is alive and well in Switzerland. Within the camp too, tensions are on the rise between those wanting to create a nation in Palestine and those wanting to start new lives elsewhere.
For Klara, who’s spent her life inside a cosy bubble of wealth and privilege, all this comes as a blunt awakening that could change her life forever – and this time, any parallels between her situation and that of Switzerland as a nation are completely intended.
Labyrinth of Peace is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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