When “The Sorrow and the Pity,” Marcel Ophuls’ chilling documentary about Nazi-occupied France, was released here in 1971, it stirred and tormented French society. How dare Ophuls, said those who opposed the film, including several ministers in the government, dredge up the repressed, painful past in which thousands of citizens collaborated with the Germans?
Never mind that Ophuls’ work was also a study of heroism, an ode to the men and women of the French Resistance who defied the German conquerors. For many French, that was still not good enough reason to put the national warts on display. Better to let the world think that the great and glorious French Resistance was France, not just an exceptional minority of brave people.
“The Sorrow and the Pity” was originally produced as a television documentary series. But the pressure against the work was so great that it was 10 years before authorities let it be aired on French national networks. As a newspaper columnist commented sarcastically, France’s shame was not ready for prime-time television.
Instead, “The Sorrow and the Pity” was shown to great acclaim in movie theaters around the world.
Ophuls’ new work, the 4 1/2-hour “Hotel Terminus,” which opens in Los Angeles next Wednesday at the Westside Pavilion, again resurrects the dark days of German-occupied France, this time in Lyon during the 1943-44 rule there by the vicious Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie. Again, Ophuls unveils the specter of collaboration, of betrayal and fraternization.
But this time the French--at least the intellectuals--were ready. Almost universally, from the right to the left, they greeted the new documentary positively, even warmly.
It opened calmly and peacefully in theaters all over France. Ophuls’ work was compared to that of Orson Welles in his classic “Citizen Kane.”
The leading weekly news magazine, L’Express, called “Hotel Terminus” the best film of the year.
“The time has come,” intoned the newspaper Le Monde in a front-page article, “to say that Marcel Ophuls is a grand cineaste"--a great film maker.
Part of the reason for the different reception was that the Barbie story had already been played before the French during his trial and conviction for “crimes against humanity” in the summer of 1987.
Barbie’s flashy attorney, Jacques Verges, built a defense that portrayed the French people as passive and active collaborators in the crimes that his 74-year-old client stood accused of, including the persecution and deportation of Jews to concentration camps.
In a much more intense way than ever before, the French were forced to face up to an ugly chapter from their past.
“A great many French people were scared of the Barbie trial,” Ophuls, 60, said during a recent interview at his apartment in the Paris suburb of Neuilly. “I think it shows that things are getting a lot better here in that the trial did take place and the French were interested and they did not switch off. The interest was sustained during the whole trial.
“I think the trial was more important to the French than my film. The trial took place and the French came out very honorably from a tight squeeze.”
Extensive publicity also surrounded Barbie’s 1983 extradition from Bolivia, where he had been living under an alias. In addition, a detailed investigation by the U.S. Justice Department resulted in the U.S. government issuing a formal apology to the French people for the role that U.S. intelligence agencies played in harboring Barbie after the war and providing him an escape route to South America.
In many ways, “Hotel Terminus” represents America’s turn to come to terms with the stigma of collaboration. Although Barbie was a wanted man in France for his crimes during the war--including the torture death of famed Resistance leader and artist Jean Moulin--American agents with the postwar Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) hired him to help pursue communists in Germany and protected him from the French.
The Americans gave Barbie and his family a home and a substantial income in the American zone in Germany. The Nazi, known as the “Butcher of Lyon” and implicated in 4,000 deaths and the deportation of 7,000 Jews, including children, to death camps, soon became a trusted and valued American agent who helped shape policy in the Cold War.
When the pressure of the French government for his return became too great, the Americans used a Vatican-based underground railroad, code-named the “rat line,” to get him to South America in 1951 under the alias Klaus Altmann. Once in South America, Barbie offered his “expertise” as a brutal interrogator to aid military dictators in Bolivia and Peru, sometimes participating in torture.
The film documents the American connection in excruciating fashion in a series of interviews with seven retired American intelligence officers. The former U.S. agents, some of whom later served in the Central Intelligence Agency, revealed how they became caught in a trap with Barbie. After working with them for several months, he knew too much about the American spy network to be turned over to the French.
Said Eugene Kolb, Barbie’s superior in the CIC, “We did not want to give Barbie up because he simply had recruited too many people, and we, rightly or wrongly, suspected that the French intelligence services had been thoroughly penetrated by communist agents. And we were very, very, fearful that the moment they got Barbie, their first interrogation task would be his work for us, and the names of the people he recruited. And that we could not afford to do.”
Thus the United States became hopelessly entangled with the Butcher of Lyon. The specter of Nazism was being perpetuated by its strongest foe.
“It was an epidemic,” said Ophuls, “an infection coming out of the vanquished and taking over the victors.”
Ophuls began making his film, a condensation of more than 120 hours of interviews on three continents, before Barbie’s trial began. The film provides almost no additional factual information to the massive record already established.
“I didn’t learn much about Barbie,” said Ophuls. “I don’t think the audience will learn much about Barbie.”
Instead, the film is a thematic continuation of Ophuls’ intense preoccupation with “complicities and about the connection there is between attention span, indifference and crime.”
As in his previous works, including “The Sorrow and the Pity” and “Memory of Justice,” a documentary about the Nuremberg war crimes trails, individuals are guided almost hypnotically back in time under Ophuls’ gentle and strangely powerful questioning. Once transported mentally back to the scene of the crime, they are confronted again with the decisions they made in those times and, more importantly, with the moral consequences of the decisions.
Ophuls seems uniquely qualified to make this film, which required interviews in German, French and English, all three of which he speaks fluently and colloquially. The son of famed German film director Max Ophuls, he was born in Germany in 1928, moved with his family to France in 1934 and fled with them to the United States in 1941 as the Germans attacked. He attended Hollywood High School during the war. Because of his father, he knew all of the great film makers of the generation. “Ophuls (Marcel), French film maker of German origin,” says the Dictionary of Cinema, “Even more than his father, Ophuls is an eternal exile. Astride three cultures, he divides his time between the three countries, judging each with the critical eye of the two others. This uncomfortable condition, paradoxically, permits him his remarkable work.”
Ophuls’ technique in “Hotel Terminus"--the name of the hotel that contained Gestapo headquarters--is what he calls the Columbo concept, after Peter Falk’s detective character in the NBC-TV series that was even more popular in France than in the United States.
“What interested me in ‘Hotel Terminus,’ ” Ophuls told a French magazine interviewer, “was the dramatic structure. It is a detective story in which the guilty person is already known: the Columbo principle.”
Like Falk’s Columbo, Ophuls bumbles and fumbles his way through interrogations. He wears his hotel bathrobe to interview Barbie’s Bolivian bodyguard. When a German man slams a door in his face, Ophuls mutters a rather jolly “Merry Christmas.” At one point in the film, he wanders through a farm field playfully interviewing plants and tools.
The music in the film is an equally strange mix, ranging from a German version of the Communist Internationale to Fred Astaire singing “Pick Yourself Up” to the Vienna Boys Choir’s version of “Joy to the World.”
In the interview, Ophuls said the film’s music and humor were a reflection of his increasing pessimism. Compared to “Hotel Terminus,” he said, “The Sorrow and the Pity” was upbeat because of the heroism of the Resistance fighters.
“I am more pessimistic and angry now,” the film maker said. “The joking and the humor and the sarcasm, I think, to a large extent was a defense mechanism.”