HOTEL TERMINUS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF KLAUS BARBIE slowly but surely indicts the international community of complying with WWII criminals. Director Marcel Ophuls uses the charmed existence of the shrewd but sociopathic Nazi Barbie as a focus for his stinging documentary-essay.
During the war, Klaus Barbie became known as the "Butcher of Lyon" for the cruel and ruthless terror he inflicted upon his victims, mostly French Jews. During Barbie's belated 1984 trial for war crimes, Ophuls interviews dozens of people who remember the man and the monster. In France, Raymond
Levy and his pool-playing friends disagree on the merits of the trial; some feel its overdue, others feel the time for retribution has passed. In Barbie's hometown of Udler, Germany, the citizens remember him fondly. But back in France, Simone Lagrange recalls being the sole survivor of Barbie's
order to arrest, deport, and murder a group of children from a farm in Izieu.
Through interviews with French Resistance leaders, Nazi leaders, and war historians, Ophuls establishes that Barbie, as head Gestapo agent in Lyon, was also responsible for the betrayal, arrest, and murder of Jean Moulin, a French Underground leader. While Barbie escaped punishment for this and
other crimes after the war, Rene Hardy, a traitor to the Underground, was imprisoned. After the war, Barbie helped run a black market in Germany, then escaped to South America with the help of American CIC agents who saw him as an ally in their fight against Communism. One American sergeant,
Robert Taylor, fails to explain why he hired Barbie, knowing what he did about his background, while another, Erhard Darbringhaus, recalls the backlash against him for exposing Barbie's past.
The second half of the film concentrates on Barbie's life in South America leading up to his trial. Former US politicians, like intelligence officer Benjamin Shute, barely recall how or why the US shielded Barbie while he lived in Bolivia under the alias Altmann. But Journalist Mirna Murillo
vividly remembers Barbie as a cruel man, even after the war, interrogating and murdering people who interfered with his arms dealing for Bolivia's General Banzer. Barbie's friend and former bodyguard, Alvaro De Castro, softens the harsh portrait of Barbie and insists he had no American connection,
yet even he admits his boss spoke admiringly of the Nazis, Mengele, and Eichmann.
Following a government coup, Barbie moved from Bolivia to Peru, where he became a world-traveling arms smuggler. Finally, in 1971, the French press learned of his existence and ran articles exposing him. Beate and Serge Klarsfeld pursued Barbie until French authorities half-heartedly extradited
him for a trial. Yet, the charges were dropped, with the prosecutors citing a lack of evidence. The Klarsfelds continued their efforts, however, and Barbie was finally brought to trial in France in 1984, where he denied his involvement in the war. With the help of a wily lawyer, Jacques Verges,
Barbie maintained his innocence, but the French prosecutors won their case and Barbie was sent away to a life sentence. Nevertheless, the trial was criticized on all sides for its lack of focus and definition. After the trial, Ms. Lagrange remembers a courageous French woman, Mme. Boutout, who
nearly saved her from the Nazi torture. Ophuls dedicates the film to the memory of this woman.
Like the landmark SORROW AND THE PITY (1970), HOTEL TERMINUS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF KLAUS BARBIE clearly establishes a pervasive guilt about the Holocaust. There are "good guys," but they are not the people usually depicted in the war film genre--e.g., the French Resistance fighters, the American
soldiers and politicians; rather, the "good guys" (like American agent Erhard Darbringhaus and French Resistance members Lucie and Raymond Aubrac) are those few who have been willing to speak out against Barbie and his cohorts. Otherwise, most of the supposed Allies represented here either barely
remember events (like feeble ex-US intelligence officer Benjamin Shute), or protest Barbie's trial (like Albert Rossett, a slick Jean-Marie Le Pen "National Front" supporter), or outright apologize for protecting him through the years (like seedy American agent Eugene Kolb). Even some of the
intellectuals, like Germany author Gunther Grass, seem a little muddled in their attitude toward Barbie and the trial.
Unlike his approach in THE SORROW AND THE PITY (1972), however, Ophuls places himself much more often into the frame as the interviewer/interrogator, making HOTEL TERMINUS a more personal work. His frustrations with the lies and nonanswers--especially the refrain that the war was "over 40 years
ago"--are recorded onscreen, and he even shows his bitter sense of humor, in scenes alone where he mocks his less cooperative interview subjects (interestingly, he also shakes hands with thuggish Barbie aide Alvaro De Castro, forcing one to wonder if he would also shake hands with Barbie, if he
had had the chance to interview him). The personal becomes political for Ophuls in his dismaying discovery that Barbie's lawyer, Jacques Verges, an advocate for left-wing causes, was really a sly politician, paid off by an anti-Semitic financier.
If anything, Ophuls perfects the interview and editing techniques of THE SORROW AND THE PITY, while building his case deliberately but forcefully, as was also the case in Claude Lanzmann's SHOAH (1985). (Appropriately, Ophuls interviews Lanzmann, though only briefly.) While Ophuls privileges the
victims and eyewitnesses to Barbie's atrocities, he refuses to romanticize their suffering (a la typical Holocaust melodramas), and he neatly reinforces their accounts by crosscutting their poignant and believable testimony with the evasive and hypocritical words of Barbie's apologists. Thus,
lively debates occur between individuals who never meet (or would ever want to meet): Lise Lesevre, a torture victim, and one of Barbie's friends, a Peruvian neighbor; the cowardly Sgt. Robert Taylor, who hired Barbie for the CIC, and the heroic Erhard Darbringhaus, who exposed him; Ivo Omrcamin,
who helped many a Nazi move to South America, and Elizabeth Holtzman, the US prosecutor of Nazi war criminals; and Francois Hemmerle, a French Resistance turncoat who exploited Jews, and Rene Tavernier, the French poet.
As the film's title suggests, Ophuls is more attuned than ever to dark irony: several of his subjects condone Barbie while sitting in front of Christmas trees (during the Kolb interview, he cuts to the angels on the trees); and just as the phantom image of the elusive and rarely seen Barbie
pervades the lengthy film, so does Ophuls's use of a German youth chorus song, which is eerie in its sweetness and light. The rough cinema verite approach (and the occasional "60 Minutes"-style ambush interview) masks a highly sophisticated-- albeit world-weary--understanding of the people and
events. Ophuls errs only in not providing the uninitiated viewer with more facts about the war itself before plunging into details about Barbie's involvement. Still, one can only be grateful that Ophuls got what he did on film and presented it in such a profound way. (Adult situations.)
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- Released: 1987
- Rating: NR
- Review: HOTEL TERMINUS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF KLAUS BARBIE slowly but surely indicts the international community of complying with WWII criminals. Director Marcel Ophuls uses the charmed existence of the shrewd but sociopathic Nazi Barbie as a focus for his stingi… (more)