“Why condemn a man who’s set to die any day now? … We’ve got better things to worry about than these old problems.”
I never expected to know so much about Klaus Barbie. Before this movie, I only vaguely knew him as the Butcher of Lyon. If there’s one thing I can say about Hotel Terminus, it’s that the movie is detailed. Comprised mostly of interviews, the film rounds out every contour of this famous Nazi’s life with first-hand accounts from those involved, while also touching on some grander themes in the process.
The film is a mostly sequential rundown of the chapters in the life of Klaus Barbie: the “Butcher of Lyon” who tortured French prisoners of the Gestapo during the reign of the Third Reich. Following the war, Barbie was given special protection by the United States who used him as an intelligence operative before he was finally sent to France to face trial for his crimes during the war. Filmmaker Marcel Ophüls speaks to Barbie’s friends, victims, associates, and just about everyone who was involved in a prominent portion of Barbie’s life. The documentary is a sweeping account on the life and times of an evil man. It touches on subjects including his torture methods, the French resistance movement, anti-Communist intelligence operations, and French judicial procedures.
Ophüls himself is one of the most interesting things about the movie. He works in a pseudo Michael Moore style, knocking on doors and demanding interviews, often finding himself in trouble with angry Nazis who want him off their property. When you hear Ophüls speak, there’s a passion to his voice. While it sometimes bothers me that the movie is four and a half hours of details, it doesn’t bother Ophüls one bit. It’s like there’s a burning conviction to find out about every second of Barbie’s life, and it’s an impressive flair that he has as a documentarian.
I also found the subject of Barbie’s trial interesting. Ophüls interviews Barbie’s lawyer, a greasy figure preying on technicalities and misinformation to try and free a clearly sinister man. There’s also the question of the time that has passed. Barbie spent the majority of his life in Bolivia escaping persecution, and his health has deteriorated by the time of the trial. Many of his victims still wanted justice, but some French people found it unnecessary to try and fight this battle given the passage of time. Barbie seems to stand in for all of the old Nazis or otherwise despicable war criminals that have lived far past the time of their misdeeds.
I did have to split the movie into two chunks while I was watching. There are so many details, specific dates, times, and people that it’s easy to get lost in it all. The section about the French Resistance, especially, was a little murky for me. I thought the CIA interviews surrounding Barbie’s post-war actions were a lot more engaging, and they’d be very relevant for anyone wanting to hear more about US Intelligence operations. The film is very well made, and I appreciate that it’s mostly first-hand accounts, but I did feel a general fatigue of substance after so long.
Overall, though, I can’t help but admire the ambition and dedication of Ophüls in crafting this movie. It’s one of the finest, most “complete” documentaries I’ve ever seen in terms of rounding out a story. It’s not something I’ll revisit again, but for its structure and information as a historical reference, I definitely found it worth watching.
Films Left to Watch: 835