This full-length documentary deals with the life, career and trial of Nazi SS officer Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyons. Virtually all aspects of his life are covered. His childhood and schooling in Germany; his early military career; his role in the head of intelligence in Lyons; his post-war employment by the US military; his life in Bolivia; his return to Europe; his trial and conviction. Interviewed are friends, enemies, associates, heroes and traitors. Written by
I have always been fascinated by history as a subject and just cannot understand why so few people show any interest in it. I have no illusions, Marcel Ophüls' long documentary about the life and times of Klaus Barbie, a brutally efficient German police chief in occupied France in World War Two, will hardly convert anyone into an avid historian. But I think it is a collective testimony that will outlive the present and could be used in history classes in a number of countries all over the world. Today and tomorrow.
The director, who throughout the movie appears as an interviewer, is an angry man. He acts accordingly and knows what he wants from the faces he encounters during the making of Hôtel Terminus. And he has an almost uncanny talent to get from the interviewed what he wants. But it feels real and I am positive that Hôtel Terminus is a frank and biased documentary. Its main aim is to convey information about facts and human nature. No one will ever be able to use it for any kind of indoctrination.
Basically, the movie is a biography of Barbie, from the beginnings in provincial Germany up to his trial in the late eighties in Lyon. Ophüls visits apparently within a very short stretch of time - the places where Barbie lived: in Germany, France and Bolivia. He talks to people there. Some have to say something about Barbie and what he did, some have not or do not want to. A wide range of statements and non-statements is artfully woven into a tissue that shows how concerned respectively unconcerned humanity as a whole can be about past events, however terrible they are. Shots of landscapes, short sequences of documentary footage and excerpts of local folkloric or popular tunes are cleverly inserted into that texture and give the statements additional emotional weight.
The movie is very concerned about two particular incidents. This maybe constitutes a weakness because the attention is directed away from Barbie. It probes deeply into the arrest and the disappearance of legendary French resistance leader Jean Moulin and into the abduction of the «enfants d'Isieux», Jewish children who found shelter in an isolated boarding school and were betrayed to the German forces of occupation. The point here is, that Barbie as the man held responsible for the two incidents had to count on French collaborators. There were suspicions that the French authorities were for a long time not very anxious to bring Barbie to trial as he had inside knowledge that would tarnish the official history of France during World War Two. The two «sub chapters» feel as if they were made specifically for a French audience, especially in the intricate Moulin affair it is difficult for an outsider to follow.
The most striking result of Hôtel Terminus is that it shows the brutal banality of terror in a totalitarian regime. Barbie, basically a public servant with a sadistic streak who executes orders he was given, does not really become alive as a character. Somehow he gradually vanishes further and further into the background. He does not play the chief villain in this movie but is used as an example of one of many ruthless henchmen of a tyranny. The message of Hôtel Terminus is, as I see it, that only the complicity or the indifference of the "general public" made Barbie's career and the atrocities he was capable of possible.
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