Icarus Films // 1988 // 267 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // January 15th, 2011
"I remember this rather calm man, who suddenly started to scream."
Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie is a humane and vital work by filmmaker Marcel Ophuls (The Sorrow and the Pity). Spanning nearly four and a half hours in length, Ophuls' film not only charts the life and career of the titular Gestapo torturer dubbed the "Butcher of Lyon," but more important, also examines the people and events that were affected by him. The result is an exhaustingly comprehensive work that deals with complicity and responsibility.
For Hotel Terminus (named after the Lyon, France hotel where Barbie's Gestapo unit was headquartered), Ophuls assembles a staggering array of interviews including (but not to limited to) survivors of Barbie, French Resistance members, American counterintelligence officers, journalists, filmmakers, attorneys, and politicians. The obsessed, dogged Ophuls encounters no small amount of resistance with his queries, some of whom argue for letting the subject go since Barbie's acts were committed 40 years ago. (The film was made in the 1980s.)
Undeterred, Ophuls' interviews tell the story of a well-liked child who grew into a cruel, brutal man unafraid to use torture to obtain what he wanted. Among his acts was the deportation of 44 Jewish orphans to Auschwitz. He was also involved in the arrest and torture of famed French Resistance fighter Jean Moulin. The participants talk about Barbie's postwar recruitment by U.S. counterintelligence agents to help them spy on communists, and how American counterintelligence was later involved in Barbie's re-location to South America. He was extradited to France in 1983.
Ophuls leaves no stone unturned. For instance, with Moulin, instead of merely presenting information about Barbie's involvement and moving on, Ophuls tries to get to the bottom of who betrayed the meeting of Resistance members at which Moulin was captured, interviewing several Resistance figures in the process.
Interestingly, Ophuls spends the bulk of the film not on Barbie's conduct during the war but on what came after. Topics such as how someone as barbaric as Barbie could have been hired and assisted by U.S. counterintelligence operatives and how he was able to resettle and live in South America for as long as he did are explored in painstaking detail.
Ophuls' persistence throughout Hotel Terminus is something to be admired. He's not quite as aggressive as Michael Moore; nonetheless, he is determined to get answers. In one scene, in which he has been trying to track down one interview subject but is met with resistance, he sarcastically turns over plants in a garden while calling the man's name. In another expression of frustration, he and one of his assistants stage a mock phone conversation to illustrate the difficulty they've encountered.
Watching Hotel Terminus is a dispiriting experience, given the selfishness, cruelty, and indifference Ophuls exposes in the film. There's the recounting of Barbie's monstrous behavior to those in his custody. There's the fact that not only did Barbie work for U.S. counterintelligence but also was allowed to re-locate to South America. There's the indifference and/or lack of cooperation displayed by multiple interviewees. The list goes on, and this is how Hotel Terminus distinguishes itself from other documentaries.
Hotel Terminus is spread out over two discs. The full frame transfer has flaws in the image, but the movie is always watchable. The sound is fine as well. English subtitles are burned onto the image. For extras, there is only a booklet with an informative January 1989 Washington Post article by Paula Span.
Hotel Terminus is much more rich and complex than I've made it seem, and although its length and slow pace will be impediments to some, it's really an important work that is well worth your time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Icarus Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English, French, German)
Running Time: 267 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Not Rated