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Marcel Ophüls has made documentaries about some of the thorniest political issues of the 20th century. His two most celebrated involve the consequences of the German occupation of France in WW2. Both clock in at over four hours, but neither is a second too long. 1969's The Sorrow and the Pity reveals the often appalling reality behind the glamorous image of the resistance. Nobody seems to have a pure motive. Competing resistance groups betrayed one another, depending on their political makeup. Interviewees tell self-serving stories that exonerate them of turning in their neighbors. Communists are scape-goated. Most shockingly, an unexpected percentage of witnesses openly and unapologetically reveal their anti-Semitism.
1988's Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie deals with the Nazi intelligence officer, who survived the war, and operated under a false identity for almost 40 years. Finally brought to justice in France in the 1980s, his trial raised a number of difficult questions. He couldn't be indicted as a war criminal because the statute of limitations on such offences is only 20 years. Yet many witnesses were still around to testify to his exceptionally cruel and sadistic crimes. Marcel Ophüls' film is constructed from dozens of interviews. Practically everything discussed is eye opening and highly dramatic. Ophüls lays bare a number of "gray-area" hot-potato issues that rarely get addressed in the public media.
SS Captain Klaus Barbie was also known as The Butcher of Lyon. He operated out of the Hôtel Terminus, rounding up Jews in hiding and dismantling resistance cells. An active and sadistic torturer, he is most noted for capturing and killing the French resistance leader Jean Moulin, but he also presided over a massacre in the town of Rehaupal, and the deportation to death camps of 44 Jewish orphans. Ophüls' camera records witnesses to all of these events, including surviving torture victims.
What Hôtel Terminus does best is explain the horrendous political mire of hypocrisy in the immediate post-war period. Barbie immediately became an agent for U.S. Army Intelligence, which instead of rounding up SS intelligence agents, hired them to ferret out Communists. Army C.I.C. purposely hid Barbie from the French; Ophüls has a stunning section in which ex Army Intelligence men seem to have selectively forgotten facts relating to Barbie's continued employment. As it turns out, Barbie didn't liquidate all of his informants in the French Resistance, and when the resistance figure René Hardy was put on trial, he brought Barbie's name into prominence. The Americans refused to let Barbie be extradited from Germany to France, and instead opened up an escape route to South America with the approval of Bishops of the Vatican. Not only does Ophüls show documents to this effect, he interviews a Catholic official who ran the program. He claims that the Germans (war criminals) he relocated in South America were persecuted by a Jewish conspiracy.
The documentary shifts to Bolivia and a new group of interviews to cover Barbie's good relations with the military government there. They set him up in business smuggling arms and give him a Bolivian diplomatic passport (and a new name) that allows him to travel back to Europe on business, even to Paris. Witnesses establish that Barbie helped the oppressive Bolivian government establish their own intelligence operation with his special knowledge of "interrogation." As a committed enemy of Communism, Barbie remained untouched in Bolivia for decades.
The depth and breadth of Ophüls' interviews is utterly convincing. We hear from sniveling Bolivian officials and a Barbie assistant who denies involvement in the man's schemes but seems to know a lot about them. A bookstore owner in La Paz talks of having his store demolished after he asked Barbie's troublesome wife not to come back. We hear from a dedicated female Nazi hunter and from a detractor who claims that rich Jews backed the woman and put her up in 4-star hotels. We also hear from René Debray, a Marxist imprisoned in Bolivia and closely associated with Che Guevara's failed insurgency -- which was put down by Bolivian Army units using techniques Barbie developed in France.
The final chapter in this near-fantastic piece of tragic history takes place in Europe after Barbie's arrest. His defense attorney Jacques Vergès sees high hypocrisy in the indictment made by the French government, which itself waged wars of occupation in Vietnam and Algeria that included many atrocious incidents. Barbie's daughter assures us that her daddy is a nice man, and claims not to know the meaning of the word "Nazi". After the verdict, Ophüls chooses to end the show by accompanying a woman that Barbie arrested and deported to the death camps when she was a girl. She was the only one of her family to survive. After 40 years she returns to the house where she was arrested, to reunite with a neighbor lady that she never forgot. The neighbor tried to hide the girl at the last minute, and received a beating for her trouble.
Hôtel Terminus is a daunting subject handled with tact and fairness. Very little voiceover (by actress Jeanne Moreau) is utilized, and when music is heard behind stills or views of scenery, it isn't used for heavy ironic effect. Ophüls conducts most of the interviews, and he drills in on pertinent topics so strongly that we wonder why his subjects aren't getting up and running away. Most try to bluff it through, and in doing so place their prevarications out in the open. It's fairly amazing when seasoned U.S. Army intelligence officers fall into Ophüls' trap; perhaps they can't believe that he would come so well prepared. Ophüls doesn't give cooperative interviewees a free ride, either, with the result that they come through with some very interesting testimony. And as for eliciting self-damning talk from a Vatican agent and South American politico-gangsters, Ophüls' accomplishment is breathtaking.
Ultimately Hôtel Terminus is an important historical document that presents vital portraits of some fascinating people and assigns faces and attitudes to personages usually identified only as "intelligence operative" or "anti-terror diplomat". Some Judges and politicians come off as ethical and others appear to be treating the issue with contempt; it's amazing to see which interviewees spout anti-Semitic rhetoric -- the actual ex- Nazis usually do not. The story of Klaus Barbie has had a broad effect on four decades' worth of international crime and skullduggery, and Marcel Ophüls takes the time to examine all of it, from multiple angles. The movie won the 1989 Oscar for best documentary.
Icarus Film's DVD of Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie is reportedly encoded on two discs. Unfortunately, for the review I was sent production check discs that divide the film into three separate discs. So I can only say that the quality of the video I saw is likely the same as what consumers will see on an actual production copy. Although the date is from April of this year, I can safely say that the transfer was done in 1999, for the feature bears a special 75th Anniversary MGM logo.
The video on my check disc set is a good transfer of elements that were probably filmed on 16mm. The flat image is always better than acceptable, although never of striking quality; it's not that kind of movie. Audio is clear and my discs had non-removable English subtitles for all the interviews conducted in French, German and Spanish. Marcel Ophüls includes interview material from one session where his film was badly scratched in the camera, but the movie is so absorbing that you won't be paying attention to details like that. My advice for interested viewers is to jot down the names of all the interviewees that pique your interest -- some of them have fascinating Wikipedia entries.
I normally decline to review from check discs because too many unknowns are involved -- the final disc may contain extras I haven't seen or an even better transfer. But Hôtel Terminus was too important to pass up. If I get a chance to see a final copy I'll update this review.
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