Tuesday, 3 May 2011

AFED #123: Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (France/US, 1988); Dir. Marcel Ophüls


Marcel Ophüls' Oscar-winning documentary is a sprawling epic that seeks answers to questions both factual and philosophical. Through a composite of dozens of interviews with subjects in France, Germany and the Americas he builds a portrait of the career of Barbie, the Nazi war criminal dubbed the Butcher of Lyon, perhaps most infamous for his capture and torture of the French Resistance leader Jean Moulin.

The director's diligent efforts to get to the bottom of the Moulin affair, and who may or may not have exposed him to the Nazis, make up much of the first half of the four and half hours. Even forty years after the event the wounds and recriminations continue to fester in the survivors and the testimonies suggest that the matter of collaboration is not quite as clear as one might imagine.

It also touches upon Barbie's formative years and the first-hand accounts of those who suffered from his sadistic interrogation techniques. Yet perhaps more astonishing are the disclosures of what happened after the war, when far from bringing Barbie to account for his crimes American intelligence instead deployed him to help them root out communists in the newly liberated Germany. Later they would assist Barbie's escape to South America, where he provided further assistance to the CIA in Bolivia before finally being extradited back for trial in Europe decades later.

Like many Nazis Barbie's lack of contrition for his crimes renders it difficult to feel much sympathy for the man, yet there are glimpses that some found him to be a likeable character and even good company, alebit often ignorant of his past. One can fully appreciate this was Ophüls' modus operandi but a little more insight into Barbie's personal life would have added richness and complexity. To understand evil one needs to understand both its provenance and the moral code by which reprehensible actions become allowable.

Or maybe this was outside the film's remit. Regardless, it's complex, disturbing and absorbing film-making.

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