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1995 IDA Career Achievement Award: Marcel Ophuls

By Jon Hofferman

An older man wearing glasses laughs.

Among the most celebrated documentary filmmakers, Marcel Ophulus revolutionized the nonfiction genre with his monumental The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), a wrenching exploration of French collaboration during the Second World War. Featuring Ophulus' now well-known combination of extensive interviews and archival footage, the film exposed the shameful reality of the French people's cooperation with the Nazis and established Ophulus as a pioneering and uncompromising practitioner of the documentary form.

A product of German, French, American, and Jewish culture, Ophulus was born in 1927 in Frankfurt. His family left Hitler's Germany for France in 1933 and in 1941 moved to Los Angeles, where his father, Max, established himself as one of Hollywood's great directors. Following two years in the army, Ophulus attended Occidental College, UCLA, and the Sorbonne before dropping out to become an assistant director. He worked with Julien Duvivier, John Huston, and Anatole Litvak and assisted in the making of the elder Ophulus' masterpiece, Lola Montes.

Ophulus's own directorial career began at a television station in Baden-Baden, Germany, where a short film he made brought him to the attention of Francois Truffaut. He was hired to provide the German episode for L’Amour a vingt ans ("Love at Twenty"), five vignettes about young love, and in 1963 he directed his first feature, Peau de banane ("Banana Peel"), which was a commercial success. His next film, Feu a volonté ("Fire at Will," 1965), starring Eddie Constantine, was a failure both at the box office and with critics, and Ophulus found himself out of work.

He reluctantly took a job with ORTF, the government­ run French television network, but he was fired after the events of May 1968. While there, however, he had begun work on a documentary about the Occupation. Encouraged by his new German television employers, he and his colleagues spent five weeks filming and five months editing The Sorrow and the Pity, which in 1969 was broadcast to great popular and critical acclaim on German and Swiss television.  Initially prohibited from being shown in France, the film eventually ran for many months at three Paris cinemas; however, it was not until 12 years later that it was formerly broadcast on French television.

Having established himself as a supremely gifted, if reticent, documentarian, Ophuls went on to make A Sense of Loss (1972), about the civil war in Ireland, and then spent the next several years creating the landmark The Memory of Justice (1976). An ambitious and demanding investigation of the Nuremberg trial and their relationship to the Algerian and Vietnamese conflicts, the film led to deep disagreements between Ophulus and his producers, and for many years he gave up filmmaking for teaching.  Then, in 1988, Ophuls completed work on what he referred to as his "most difficult and least good-natured movie," a study of the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. Named after the Lyons establishment where Barbie and his Gestapo associates conducted many of their inhumane acts, Hotel Terminus won an Academy Award and brought Ophulus again into the forefront of documentary filmmakers. Recent projects have included November Days (1990), a film made for the BBC on the fall of the Berlin Wall, and The Troubles We've Seen (1994), an examination of the Bosnian conflict and the nature of war reporting.

Despite his success and his remarkable facility for analyzing and presenting complex ethical issues, Ophuls remains a reluctant documentarian, allegedly preferring the "art and artifice" of traditional studio features to the "real-life bull" of the nonfiction form. "I don't share the documentary film ethic," he once observed. "I'm not a purist about it. I look for everything that is amusing or startling. I try to entertain." Yet, compelled by circumstance to enter a field not of his choosing, Ophulus changed the face of the genre, expanding its scope and creating a kind of epic philosophical discourse by means of which he continues to confront the great questions of our time.