Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988)

“The word ‘Nazi’ doesn’t exist”

At almost 4 1/2 hours long, Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie from director Max Ophuls thoroughly examines the career of the man who served as Gestapo Chief of Lyon during WWII and earned the name “The Butcher of Lyon” for his various crimes against humanity. The filmmaker painstakingly disassembles Barbie’s life from his early boyhood, his Nazi career, through his post WWII activities, and the new life he established in S. America. While the film ostensibly concentrates on the life of one man, Ophuls subtly, and successfully makes larger statements regarding fascism–a phenomenon so widespread that Barbie managed to successfully convert his Nazi resume to further his career prospects with post WWII CIC activities and also leap into bigger and better things in rightwing Bolivia.

While boyhood chums recall Barbie as a natural leader, and find it difficult to imagine him as a war criminal, his victims remember his brutal torture techniques. Barbie was responsible for the death–amongst others–of French resistance leader Jean Moulin, and Barbie also personally supervised the brutal round up of Jewish children from the orphanage at Izieu to be shipped off for execution at Auschwitz. Following WWII, Barbie, as a prominent Nazi was employed by the American CIC, and various agents recall their memories of Barbie. It’s particularly interesting to note the interviews with former CIC agents who state on camera that they had no idea of Barbie’s background, and can’t really verbalize what Nazi ideology is anyway. Former CIC agent Eugene Kolb clearly believes that a Nazi is better than a communist any day of the week. He excuses America turning a blind eye to Barbie’s past by saying, “The world is shot through with moral ambiguities.”

When things got too hot for Barbie in the CIC, he received an all-expenses paid one-way ticket with his family to Bolivia. Barbie’s career in South America is extraordinary. I had imagined that Nazis who’d managed to get to that distant continent were hiding out on some remote ranch somewhere in the impenetrable Andes. Not so, Barbie was a prominent citizen in Bolivia–and up to his old tricks: arms smuggling, torture, and dirty politics. He was even involved with the Fiances of Death and Italian terrorist Stefano Delle Chiaie.

Ophuls uses the footage brilliantly. He juxtaposes interviews that expose conflicting information to highlight the web of lies–both political and personal–that were necessary to further Barbie’s bloody international career. Ophuls confronts former Nazis, and it takes a few questions to expose the fact that they’re now just old Nazis–still locked in denial about exactly what happened during WWII. One even has the gall to demand, “Whatever happened to human rights?” But throughout all this, there’s Barbie–who remains ultimately a strange, distant figure, proud, confident and utterly unrepentant. Regarding his past, he has this to say, “I’ve forgotten it, if they haven’t it’s their concern.”

The film raises fascinating moral questions. There are those on camera who feel that prosecuting Barbie 40 years after the war is excessive, and there are those who believe Barbie acted as a mere soldier under orders from higher ups. Then there’s the fact that he tortured Resistance fighters who wore no uniforms and opposed the Vichy government. If you are a documentary fan and are even remotely interested in the subject, then I highly recommend this riveting and highly relevant film.

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Filed under Documentary, Political/social films

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