NEW YORK - There is no pretense of impartiality in "Hotel Terminus," Marcel Ophuls' documentary about Klaus Barbie, the lethal Gestapo chief of Lyons, who was extradited from Bolivia to France in 1983, eventually tried, and sentenced to life in prison. In marked contrast to the rueful, elegiac tone of "The Sorrow and the Pity," [Max Ophuls]' 1970 documentary landmark examining French complicity during the Nazi occupation of France, Ophuls throws himself into the frame, badgers reluctant witnesses, speaks sarcastically to them, prods, hounds, attacks, showing details such as family Christmas trees as he asks questions about torture. "How are you going to make your point if you don't use irony, either in off-screen voices or juxtapositions? One of the ways for a pessimist to avoid turning cynical is to be funny," Ophuls says.
Ophuls' involvement began simply enough, when the editor of The Nation asked him if he'd cover the trial in 1983. From that came a book contract. When Ophuls spent his publishing advance traveling to do research, an offer came from an American journalist, John Fisher, to make a film. (Fisher became one of its producers.) After The Nation asked Ophuls to review Claude Lanzmann's Holocaust film, "Shoah," Ophuls revised his own strategy. "Being confronted with 'Shoah' made it clear that the film could not be about the Holocaust. But Barbie's career provides a link between then and now." When Sam Goldwyn Jr., the film's US distributor, came to the editing room in Paris," says Ophuls, "I was on the verge of suicide. How could you show that uncut mess to someone who was financing you? But he said it was a detective story, which was very perceptive."
"Yes, we had to flee," Ophuls says. "They were breathing down our necks. We didn't know about the gas chambers, but we knew if we were caught, we'd be dead. I had uncles in Dachau." If his father had not been a film maker, with Louis Jouvet, one of the best-known of prewar Franch actors, to help him, Ophuls says he might have wound up at Izieu, the village near Lyons from where 44 Jewish children were sent by Barbie to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. Ophuls does not stress the fact that he has a German wife. Still, he says, "I do not believe in collective guilt. The idea that there's a Barbie in all of us I think is a trendy and dangerous and poisonous idea. Anti-Semitism is not a particularly French issue.