HOTEL TERMINUS (Marcel Ophüls, 1988)

“He looked like an ordinary man.”

“Do you know I’m Jewish?” Marcel Ophüls, son of Max, asks when a former associate of Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” insists that Barbie didn’t dislike Jews. This moment electrifies in the brilliant, intricate 4½-hour Ophüls documentary Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie; it splits open the mask of journalistic curiosity and objectivity. Ophüls digs in, referring to Nazi stereotyping, when he further asks, “Did Barbie teach you how to identify Jews?”
     A master torturer, Lyon’s Gestapo chief also contributed to the implementation of Hitler’s “final solution.” When confronted in another interview by someone’s insistence that the roles of Mengele, Eichmann and Barbie were all “exaggerated,” Ophüls dryly quips, “Will you please name someone whose contribution was not exaggerated?”
     Barbie remained useful after the war, having been recruited as an informant by the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps in its anti-Soviet “Cold War” efforts. It is from Bolivia, in whose national politics he became involved behind the scenes, that Barbie was extradited to stand trial in Lyon for crimes against humanity. In 1987, Barbie was sentenced to life-imprisonment.
     The film takes its title from the name given to Gestapo headquarters in Lyon during the war. The filmmaker, celebrated for The Sorrow and the Pity (Le chagrin et la pitié, 1969), about France’s collaborationist Vichy government, was himself German-born.
     Punctuated by offscreen choral German folksinging (so benign it becomes ironical—perhaps linked to the orphans Barbie sent to their death), the film mixes interviews and archival materials, and will repeat a snippet when this helps. The assemblage, precise and light, as richly entertains as it engrosses. It evolves into a sublime comedy of conflicting memories and testimonies.
     Won the Oscar, the prize of international critics at Cannes.

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