Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988)

“Without a story structure to guide us, we become the accomplices of the director – his passengers. We go where he goes. Ophuls asks the same questions again and again, until we grow as angry as he does by the evasions of the answers. When he grows sarcastic (ridiculing one man who will not talk to him by interviewing the cabbages in his garden), it is a relief – we’re fed up, too. By the end of “Hotel Terminus,” we have become absorbed somewhat into the filmmaking process; in a strange way, we have gone on the same quest as Ophuls.”

‘Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie’, directed by Marcel Ophüls in 1988, is a French documentary focusing on ‘The Butcher of Lyon’, an infamous Nazi war criminal who, after being involved in the deaths of an estimated 14,000 people in occupied France, including 44 orphans from Izieu, was recruited by the CIA to fight communists, escaped with US help to Bolivia and was finally extradited and convincted of war crimes just as the movie was being made. Like ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’, Ophüls’s earlier study of France under occupation, this documentary looks forensically at an individual component of the war (in the first movie it was the town of Clermont-Ferrand, here it is the life and career of one man). Through this micro-historical study, Ophüls gets to the heart of the psychology and twisted morality of both collaboration and resistance at the time. In this long film (lasting around five and a half hours), he manages to interview everyone from colleagues of Barbie to his victims; from neighbours of him as child, to witnesses of his life in Bolivia. Ophüls unpacks the convoluted story, made more complex by its focus on the ways countries effectively bartered war criminals. The wartime career of Barbie is narrated throughout, although it’s really the focus on the first half. Ophüls’ movie moves from biographical study, through territory familiar to anyone who has seen ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’, through and analysis of international espionage, to finally a courtroom drama. The achievement of his documentary is not just what it says about the man, but about how it reflects more broadly on the notion of war crimes. To this end, Ophüls is present throughout, far more than in his earlier documentary. You don’t get the sense that this is an attempt at dispassionate balance, but, together with his earlier film, the phrase ‘a warning from history’ has never been more pertinent.

Would I recommend it? Yes – though it’s a gruelling and complex movie. It would be insane to suggest a double bill with this and ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ but it is obvious. Maybe not all in one day though.

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