Toward the end of "Hotel Terminus," Klaus Barbie says into a South American TV camera, "I've forgotten. If they haven't, it's their concern."
What he's speaking of is the uncountable number of Jews he put to death or tortured during World War II when he became known as "The Butcher of Lyon."And what makes his comment especially chilling is that so many of the subjects of the film have repeatedly told filmmaker Marcel Ophuls (whose "The Sorrow and the Pity" and "The Memory of Justice" are considered classics in the genre) that he shouldn't be so concerned about something that happened 40 years ago.
But, of course, that's the point. We should be concerned, Ophuls is saying. We must be concerned so that nothing even close to the Holocaust ever happens again.
While this may seem an overworked subject to some, and though Ophuls' latest film admittedly never reaches the emotional zenith of Claude Lanzmann's remarkable "Shoah," "Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie" is still a worthy achievement and especially in the second half becomes quite gripping. (It won the Oscar as best documentary picture this past March.)
Without the shock newsreel footage we often associate with Holocaust documentaries, Ophuls shares the screen with those he interviews to show the detective process he went through in securing some of the interviews, as well as his interrogation techniques, which lends a depth of understanding to his motivations. His interviews range from victims to SS officers to French and American military officers.
The latter interviews, with the French and Americans who helped Barbie not only escape early trials for his war crimes but set him up in Bolivia to use his torture tactics all over again against the Communists, may shock audiences unfamiliar with this fact. And those who are familiar may look at it in a different light, juxtaposed as these interviews are with those of Barbie's victims.
"Hotel Terminus" is not without flaws, not the least of which relate to its unwieldy 4 1/2-hour length. Because of his freedom, Ophuls feels free to digress whenever an interesting side note comes up, but he sometimes digresses for such a long time that the film loses its focus and becomes tedious. And during these moments viewers may wish they had a textbook with them to help figure out what some of the side references mean.
But, especially in its second half, the pace picks up, and when we eventually see Barbie it's not without some irony. After merely hearing about him for so long, we expect some insane monster when he finally appears onscreen. But, of course, he is instead a benign old man who suffered a stroke just before his trial in 1983 (when Barbie himself was in his 80s).
Also notable are some of the people interviewed, some of them fascinating characters whose stories are quite compelling.
This may not be the mammoth classic Ophuls intended, but "Hotel Terminus" is nonetheless a worthy companion piece to "Shoah" and Ophuls' own earlier films. It is unrated but would probably get a PG for a few profanities and some graphic verbal descriptions of Nazi atrocities.