Film Festival; The 'Butcher of Lyons' Is Himself Picked Apart
Marcel Ophuls's ''Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie'' begins with a deceptive sense of restraint and calm. In the opening sequence, a friend of Mr. Barbie's recalls a New Year's Eve party at which the former Gestapo officer took offense at some disrespectful remarks made about Hitler.
Marcel Ophuls's ''Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie'' begins with a deceptive sense of restraint and calm. In the opening sequence, a friend of Mr. Barbie's recalls a New Year's Eve party at which the former Gestapo officer took offense at some disrespectful remarks made about Hitler. The friend was amused that Mr. Barbie still might find some subjects not funny.
Cut to Lyons, where three former members of the French Resistance are playing pool and talking about Mr. Barbie's forthcoming trial for crimes against humanity, committed in and around Lyons in 1944 and 1945.
The aging Frenchmen now seem philosophical. Terrible things were done, that's true, but it was all such a long time ago. One fellow recalls that he was a 15-year-old bellboy at the Hotel Terminus when it was the Gestapo headquarters in Lyons. Were the Germans good tippers? They were, he says with a smile, ''but we also cheated them a bit.''
Sitting in front of a Christmas tree, a former American intelligence agent does his best to appear at ease and cooperative. He talks to Mr. Ophuls in a friendly, now-that-you-mention-it manner.
Oh, yes, he says, he certainly did use Mr. Barbie, no doubt about that. He worked with him closely, in fact, but he never had the feeling that Mr. Barbie was the sort of man who might be guilty of atrocities. Mr. Barbie was such a devilishly clever fellow that he wouldn't have to lower himself. A very old German farmer remembers Klaus as a boy he called ''Sonny.''
This early testimony is almost genial
Yet ''Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie'' quickly gathers the force and the momentum of a freight train that will not be stopped or sidetracked. It is inexorable in its pursuit of truth, not just about Barbie the ''butcher of Lyons,'' but about the moral climate of his world and of ours today.
This spellbinding, four-and-a-half-hour film will be shown at the New York Film Festival today at 6:15 P.M. and on Saturday at 6:30. It starts a commercial engagement Sunday at the Cinema Studio.
In form, ''Hotel Terminus'' is much like Mr. Ophuls's classic ''Sorrow and the Pity'' (1970), a vivid, harrowing, minutely detailed recollection of France under the German Occupation as it was experienced in and around the town of Clermont-Ferrand. Like ''The Sorrow and the Pity,'' the new film is composed of dozens and dozens of interviews, each of which evokes another narrative within the principal narrative.
These accumulate, finally, to create a vast historical panorama far beyond the scope of conventional movie fiction. At the center there is the unprepossessing figure of Mr. Barbie himself, self-described as ''privileged to act as a small but active member of the Fuhrer's following.''
A boyhood friend recalls Mr. Barbie as a good pal. In addition, he is, variously, ''a Nazi idealist''; a man who would fondle a cat one minute and beat up a young girl the next, and a Nazi survivor who, in the immediate postwar years, was employed by American intelligence, both for his own talents and those of his informants, a network, one man says, stretching ''from Portugal to Moscow.'' Mr. Barbie was a con artist who sold snake oil to his American benefactors.
At the end of his career, in South America before his extradition to Europe in 1983, he was a tireless hustler and deadly crackpot, wheeling and dealing in Bolivia and Peru where he was an active member of the German business communities, hobnobbing with politicians, arms dealers and drug traffickers.
he witnesses to Mr. Barbie's life and times include his victims, his colleagues in the Gestapo (who are less defensive than his colleagues in American intelligence), veterans of the French Resistance, collaborators, historians, janitors, businessmen, leftists, rightists, neighbors, journalists and, the film's most enigmatic character, Jacques Verges, the man who defended Mr. Barbie at his trial last year.
The method is the same that Mr. Ophuls used in ''The Sorrow and the Pity,'' but ''Hotel Terminus'' is very different from that film and from Claude Lanzmann's ''Shoah.'' ''The Sorrow and the Pity'' is meditative, a sad but even-tempered film that can find pathos in the desperately frightened face of a woman, a collaborator, having her head shaved in front of an angry mob.
''Shoah'' is almost unbearably mournful, not only because of the graphic testimony recalled so matter-of-factly by Mr. Lanzmann's witnesses, but also because there's scarcely a frame of film that doesn't suggest the manner by which time softens the past. ''Shoah'' says that some things must not be forgotten, but distance blurs the image and, no matter how we try to remember it, pain recedes. The images of a concentration camp as it looks today - a peaceful, ghostly, parklike setting with well-tended grass - are metaphors for the impermanence of all things, including memory.
In ''Hotel Terminus'' Mr. Ophuls is anything but meditative. He's angry and sarcastic and, as the film goes on, he becomes increasingly impatient. He argues with reluctant witnesses. He pushes his camera into a stranger's face and laughs when the stranger refuses to cooperate. (One such stranger is an ex-President of Bolivia, caught as he's putting out his garbage.) The tempo of the cross-cutting between witnesses speeds up, on occasion so maddeningly that one forgets the identity of the speaker. At times, it seems as if the director were telling some self-serving interviewee to stop all this nonsense and come clean. At other times, he appears to fear that he simply won't be able to get everything in. The more he digs, the more he finds.
Mr. Ophuls is not dealing with some vague, comfortingly abstract concept of guilt, but with provable guilt, which includes guilt by association, by stupidity, by naivete and, most of all, by deed.
The film is rich with the details of how people look, sound and behave, and with the details of middle-class decor, from the rugs on the floor to the pictures on the walls. There are plenty of things a film cannot do, but no novelist could possibly set a scene with the inventorying eye of the Ophuls camera.
''Hotel Terminus'' leaves certain questions unaswered, but that's all right too. One longs to learn more about the rabidly anti-Communist Rene Hardy, twice aquitted of charges that he betrayed his Resistance comrades, and about Mr. Verges, who attempted to defend Mr. Barbie by equating Nazi atrocities with France's colonial policies. In any case, the questions are raised.
The Barbie trial is something of an anti-climax in the film, as it was in fact when Mr. Barbie refused to take the stand. Yet ''Hotel Terminus'' proceeds to its conclusion with the breathtaking relentlessness of superior fiction. It's a fine, serious work by a film maker unlike any other.
Great. SEETHING CHRONICLE - HOTEL TERMINUS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF KLAUS BARBIE,
- produced and directed by Marcel Ophuls;
- photography by Michael Davis, Pierre Boffety, Reuben Aaronson, Wilhelm Rosing, Lionel LeGros, Daniel Chabert and Paul Gonon;
- edited by Albert Jurgenson and Catherine Zins;
- production company: the Memory Pictures Company; a Samuel Goldwyn release. At Alice Tully Hall as part of the 26th New York Film Festival. Running time: 267 minutes. This film has no rating.