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Hotel Terminus is sidetracked by director Ophuls' pent-up feelings



Produced and directed by Marcel Ophuls.

At the Coolidge Corner Cinema.


DIRECTOR MARCEL OPHULS HAS produced in HOTEL TERMINUS: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie a film that is as disappointing as it is successful. No one makes epic documentaries the way Ophuls does, and indeed, the highly complex film is a monumental exploration of both the Nazi past and its remnants in the present. But 18 years after Le Chagrin et la Piti'e ("The Sorrow and the Pity") established his international reputation, Ophuls seems to have forgotten his famous ability for understated lamentation and downplayed the demonstrated clarity of his vision.

And when the foremost documentarian of the past two decades forgets the virtues of patience, adopts the tone of a polemic, and ends up mocking his subjects on camera, the initial reaction of surprise can only give way to dismay and, ultimately, sadness.

Why Ophuls chose this path probably has much to do with the circumstances under which the film was made. Originally, Ophuls was to have written a series of articles for The Nation magazine about the war crimes trial of Klaus Barbie, the ex-Gestapo chief known as "the Butcher of Lyons" who was extradited from Bolivia to France in 1983. But the trial's starting date kept getting pushed back, and Ophuls grew more and more frustrated as the delays mounted. As his funds began to dwindle, Ophuls and his assistants decided to raise money for a film instead. Ophuls began filming interviews with those who had known Barbie during and after the war as a way to continue research into Barbie's past, and by the time Barbie's trial came to an end in July 1987, Ophuls had accumulated about 120 hours of footage. As the film began to take shape, Ophuls decided to make the trial into the film's logical, if somewhat anti-climactic, culmination rather than its centerpiece.

Ophuls originally intended to write a series of articles for The Nation magazine about the war crimes trial of Klaus Barbie, the ex-Gestapo chief known as the "Butcher of Lyons." Barbie was extradited from Bolivia to France in 1983. But as delays in the trial date mounted, Ophuls grew more and more frustrated and decided instead to begin filming interviews with those who had known Barbie during and after the war. By the July 1987 end of Barbie's trial Orphuls had accumulated 120 hours of footage.

From the final cut of the film, it is apparent that many persons approached by Ophuls would rather bury the Nazi past than address it forthrightly. Typical of the American intelligence officials who recruited and shielded Barbie from prosecution is Robert Taylor, who evaluated Barbie in 1945 as "an honest man" and "a Nazi idealist." When asked four decades later what he meant by those words, Taylor can only shrug and reply "I don't know." Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party in France, even goes so far as to claim that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust is less than the universally accepted figure of six million.

Unfortunately, Ophuls reacts to provocative remarks like these by venting his impatience and anger as he makes fun of and argues with his subjects. At one point, Ophuls even includes a mock telephone call to a prospective interviewee, with himself playing the part of the reluctant subject, to demonstrate the typical evasions, half-truths, and denials that he encountered while making the film.

Clearly, the remarks made in the film are inflammatory enough to outrage anyone, but it was precisely for transcending reactionary emotionalism that Ophuls was so widely praised in the past. Far from leading the way with wisdom and clarity as he might have done earlier, Ophuls ends up lashing out with sarcasm and bitterness instead, and it is this tendency that imbues the film with a harsher edge that borders on the polemical.

Polemical filmmaking per se is hardly something to be avoided at all costs. In the proper place and time, it can be the most effective way to call attention to a problem ignored in the past. The Holocaust, however, has been the subject of countless bombasts. In fact, there have been so many that the repeated warnings to "never forget" have begun to take on an increasingly perfunctory nature. Ophuls must be aware of this since he himself has addressed the Nazi past several times, and so one wonders why he reacts as though he were being rebuffed by interviewees for the first time.

The answer is that Ophuls is approaching polemicism from the other side -- he told The New York Times that "I'm thoroughly fed up. I was fed up even before I started The Sorrow and the Pity." Ophuls also characterized the film's tone as "an angry flippancy," explaining that "It was one way, my way, at this stage of my life to deal with that period [the Nazi past]." One can only respect the honesty of such an admission. It is nevertheless most unfortunate that the remark also demonstrates the loss of what the film could have been, and one can only regret that Ophuls did not find the strength within himself to conquer his frustration.

But Ophuls' awareness of the complexity of reality remains as sharp as ever, and that alone is enough to carry the film far beyond the simplifications found in television documentaries. Ophuls' films are four and a half hours long precisely because he refuses to insult the intelligence of the audience by packaging decades of history into ready-made and predigested chunks. The thematic issues that underlie Barbie's story are as rich and complex as the geographic and historical span is broad, and Ophuls' film rises to the occasion.

This is most apparent in the film's last hour, where Ophuls concentrates on Jacques Verg'es, the left-wing lawyer who vehemently defended Barbie inside and outside the courtroom. Like the strong-willed defense counsel in Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremburg (1981), Verges argued that the atrocities Barbie was accused of committing were necessary to ensure the success of the Nazi regime. Verges brilliantly underscored his arguments by reminding the French prosecutors and public that France justified its own tortures and atrocities in Algeria with precisely the same claim. This one issue alone immediately raises wrenching dilemmas about moral relativism, historical accuracy, personal motivations, legal precedents, and a host of others. Ophuls, to his immense credit, presents the vast complexities involved without exaggerating or simplifying any of them.

Ophuls also has a startling ability to foster debate among people who are not directly speaking to each other. His technique is to ask penetrating questions to one person, ask similar or follow-up questions to another person, and then feed the answers back to the original person to compare responses. This is, of course, the classic role of a moderator, but there is a crucial difference between Ophuls and, say, Ted Koppel. That difference is the power of editing afforded by the medium of the film, an ability which is considerably more flexible than cutting off a speaker or interrupting a heated discussion. This difference has the direct and immediate result of introducing an added element to the criteria by which Ophuls' work should be judged: the ability to edit the large amount of footage into a coherent, meaningful whole.

On this score, Ophuls is most successful on a micro level, i.e. editing within a single conversation rather than among them. If a typical television news reporter wishes to edit a person's statement by removing, say, the second sentence, the standard practice is to show the person speaking the first sentence, then cut to a brief reverse-angle shot of the reporter nodding or listening intently as the interviewee starts the third sentence in voice-over, and finally cut back to the interviewee completing the third sentence. As those who saw Broadcast News might recall, this technique is nothing but pretense since the shots of the reporter are filmed after the interview is over and the camera has been moved to the other side of the room. Ophuls, to the other hand, just cuts to a shot of a building or location that is relevant to the topic under discussion. This not only is more honest, it actually helps to reinforce the points being made by either the speaker or by Ophuls. This is such a simple way to avoid deceiving viewers that it is astounding that television news reporters did not adopt the technique years ago.

In terms of macro or structural editing, Ophuls is not always as successful, since much of the film was shot while waiting for the trial to begin. For instance, Ophuls devotes considerable time near the beginning of the film to a discussion of whether a man named Ren'e Hardy was the one who betrayed French Resistance leader Jean Moulin to the Nazis. While the issue presents fascinating insights into the inner circle of Resistance leaders, the only connection it has with Barbie is that Barbie was the officer whose unit arrested Moulin in what came to be known as the Caluire incident. One senses that Ophuls was unable to probe beyond the factual details of Barbie's actions and therefore focused on a peripheral, if still-raging, debate about Hardy's guilt or innocence. Similarly, Ophuls opens the film by interviewing some elderly residents of Lyons as they leisurely play billiards, of all things.

But these opening moments are deceptive since, four hours later, the film often proceeds at such a furious pace that one is forced to focus on what is being said instead of worrying about the speaker's identity. And when Ophuls travels to South America and finds a thoroughly familiar indifference to the Nazi past among Barbie's neighbors, one begins to understand why many in the Third World, victimized by superpower colonialism and facing the pressures of day-to-day survival, respond strongly to Verges' trial defense of Barbie. "I wanted to show what violins Verg'es was playing on," said Ophuls to The New York Times. "Very potent, aren't they?"

It is reassuring to realize that Ophuls' expertise in knowing what to film remains intact after all these years. It is that ability, after all, which brings so many fascinating points to light and fuels the film's progress toward artistic success. That is why it is so unfortunate that the film became sidetracked by Ophuls' pent-up feelings. One can only hope that his resort to didacticism was cathartic enough to allow Ophuls to reach in his next film the moving and inspiring heights he was known for in the past.