Home Video Hovel: Hotel Terminus
What is the statute of limitations on evil? Should there be one? Does a person ever stop being evil? These are questions raised in Marcel Ophuls’ 1988 Oscar-winning documentary, Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie. This epic examination of the so-called “Butcher of Lyon” leaves no stone unturned as Ophuls and crew speak to anyone who possibly had connections with Barbie, a Nazi Gestapo leader who said to have been directly responsible for up to 14,000 deaths in France as well as viciously torturing dozens of men, women, and children. Barbie was not brought to justice for 40 years and the film talks in depth to people who believe the past should be left along as well as those who, like Ophuls, believe no amount of time can erase such actions.
The nearly 4.5 hour film discusses Barbie’s war crimes, his subsequent working for the U.S. Army’s counter-intelligence corps, his absconding to South America, and his eventual discovery and war crimes trial in France.
Everything is told through interviews with various people, scholars, experts, etc. and through archival photographs and film. While there is no narration, Ophuls himself as the interviewer is very much a character in the film, often interjecting his own opinion through his questioning. It is clear that Ophuls believes Barbie to be pure evil and is doggedly determined to get to the “truth” about the man and why he was not brought to justice for so long. Ophuls is combative with nearly every one of his interviewees, even those he tends to agree with, which comes from his deep anger about the entire situation. The son of filmmaker Max Ophuls, Marcel Ophuls is a German Jew, raised in France, who spent a great deal of time in Hollywood as a young man, and as such he has ties to every group involved and knows how to tell a story cinematically. He’s clearly done a great deal of research and investigating himself and as such will immediately confront people if they give a response that contradicts what he’s found. Ophuls is not trying to sensationalize the film, like a Michael Moore would, but instead is merely obsessed with finding out what really happened.
The film is split into sections that roughly tell of Barbie’s exploits chronologically. There are harrowing tales of his beating and torturing of Jews and French Resistance members from survivors. One story in particular that carries on throughout the film is of a Jewish woman who was a little girl at the time and she and her parents were brutalized repeatedly for not disclosing the whereabouts of their other two children. There are also many interviews with former Nazis and Nazi sympathizers/apologists who speak as though it was all just a part of the war, and that so many years later it ought to be let go. There are also lots of interviews with Americans who either worked with or were the supervisor to Barbie when he was an informant and agent for the U.S. Army CIC, the precursor to the CIA. These people clearly had no knowledge (or care) about the atrocities committed by Barbie, but in the fight against the communists, former Nazis proved to be an invaluable resource. Ophuls is quietly outraged by the way the Butcher of Lyon was harbored by the U.S. government and how they eventually helped him flee to South America to escape being brought up on war crimes. While in Bolivia, Ophuls finds people who worked with him, and there’s even a claim that Barbie was one of the ones who orchestrated Che Guevara’s downfall. The film also shows us reaction to Barbie’s capture, extradition, and trial for crimes against humanity, that he was eventually found guilty of.
While incredibly fascinating, the film is very heavy on the information and, at four and a half hours, is difficult to keep track of or absorb in one sitting. Still, there’s no shortage of real human drama amid all the facts and opinions. The spoken languages in the film depend on the people being spoken to, with French and German being the most common, also some Spanish and a bit of English. As such, the bulk of the film is subtitled and it can be difficult to keep up as some of the interviewees speak very quickly. These are minor quibbles, of course, and the film is well worth the watch, even if watched over several sittings. The DVD release by Icarus Films is just as no-nonsense as the film itself. It’s a two disc release with half the film on one and the other half on the other. There are no special features in the set, though truthfully there couldn’t possibly be any more information one would need to know. There is a 12-page booklet included as well which offers a reaction to the film and its legacy over the years which fills in the 22 year gap since it was initially released. The transfer of the film on the DVD is gorgeous and the sound quality is excellent. It’s as crisp as if you were watching a brand new film print. Nothing fancy here, but the real star is the film in question, so no flashy extras are necessary.
Marcel Ophuls is clearly a man passionate about that era in world history and, like his most famous film, The Sorrow and the Pity, Hotel Terminus offers every single fact available. In truth, Klaus Barbie had one of the most astonishingly varied careers of anyone and learning about him was thoroughly engrossing. Knowing that he was a man who had committed such evils makes spending so much time with him a bit difficult. Ophuls never interviews the man himself and we see him only in pictures and bits of other films, so the effect really is as to get the views of every other person who might have been involved somehow. We’re not getting Barbie’s side of the story; we’re getting other people’s side to Barbie’s story. It’s up to us to make up our minds about the man and, even though Ophuls clearly has his mind in one direction, the beauty of the film is that he doesn’t force us to believe it too.