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Hotel Terminus: Ophuls' Cinema of Discovery

By Robert Spiegelman

The back of four men in hats staring at a sign posted on the wall. From Marcel Ophuls' Hotel Terminus (1988).

Marcel Ophuls' moral passion and cinematic methods have been renovating documentary film for over 20 years. From the re­nowned The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) to Academy Award winner Hotel Terminus (1988), his films are acts of "discovery," using boldly innovative techniques to explore human behavior under extreme situations. Through the interplay of brilliant research and creative interviewing, Ophuls rescues our nearly forgotten wartime/postwar past to discover its living impact on the present. And as "research probes," they raise potent, disturbing questions about filmmaking as well as politics and our social condition.

Ophuls' genius lies in creating film-mirrors of the past through which we continually rediscover ourselves in the present. The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) engages us in moral dilemmas and choices faced by the French under Nazi Occupation (1940-1944). The compelling interviews probe the souls of those who resisted, collaborated or simply endured Nazi rule. Hotel Terminus (1988), winner of the Cannes International Critics Award and Los Angeles critics award for best documentary, features equally riveting interviews. They engage us in the amazing career (1930-1987) of ex-Nazi war criminal, Klaus Barbie, and its disturbing implications for our daily lives.

Nicknamed "Butcher of Lyons," Gestapo Chief Barbie was indicted in 1983 for over 900 murders including those of French Resistance hero Jean Moulin, and 52 innocent Jewish children deported to Auschwitz. At war's end, Barbie was secretly recruited as an anti-Soviet Cold War­rior; after five years he was ferreted to South America to escape French arrest. There he thrived under further intelligence agency protection as a death-squad trainer, coup-maker, and international arms dealer. Extradited to France in 1987, Barbie's trial became a major international event resulting in life imprisonment for his crimes against humanity.


To grasp Ophuls' cinematic methods we first need to know the passions they serve. Christopher Simpson, Hotel Terminus' research director, is a unique participant observer. Simpson played a supportive but key role in Ophuls' design: "the film was Marcel's baby and I was happy to be a part." His own award­ winning book, Blowback (1988), is a chilling anti-Cold War expose that combines his background in investigative reporting with the hands­ on research skills of a professional historian. Together, filmmaker and researcher share the same passions: that truth be told and justice done. More than 40 years later, says Simpson, "we must still come to terms with the Holocaust"—with the psychological trauma, moral disaster and political "fallout." Blowback and Hotel Terminus prove that our government secretly recruited thousands of ex-Nazis—from missile scientist von Braun to, yes, mass-killer Barbie!—to achieve its postwar goals.

"But why not let sleeping dogs lie?," was my "late-'80s" question. After a long pause, Simpson replied with quiet conviction: "Because they're not really asleep." The postwar past, he insists, continues to shape us: "It's not like society has solved all these things and now we're dredging them up again."

By following Barbie's career across five decades and three continents, Hotel Terminus discovers startling links between events usually kept separate—the Nazi Occupation of France, the Holocaust, the Cold War And the Contragate-style arms/drugs trade that plunders the planet. Barbie was an avid player in all four; his murderous career em­ bodies the underlying, hidden history of our time. Ophuls and Simpson battle to rescue this postwar history from being buried alive. Hotel Terminus identifies the enemy as a political culture hell-bent—literally—on pronouncing the last rites. For example, Ophuls injects a clip of President Reagan's controversial wreath-laying at SS graves in Bitburg, Germany which symbolically buried the politics of the war: the fight against Nazism, our alliance with the Soviets. In Ophuls' eye-view, Reagan's "let bygones be bygones" at Bitburg means that "forgetting the past" became official policy.

Ophuls' passion for remembering is matched by his passion for reaching an international audience and Barbie's transnational career is the perfect vehicle. For example, American intelligence—with Vatican help—saved Barbie from French ar­rest by shipping him to Bolivia (1951). Spanning U.S., French, German and Latin American histories, Hotel Terminus links separated national audiences in a new way. Each nation's audience may be ignorant of the other's national pasts, but each gets exposed to a different nation's history—with important links to his own.

Ophuls' "history lesson" puts all audiences on a more or less equal footing. Many viewers barely know their own nation's history, let alone another's. Since everyone has something to learn, Terminus allows no "privileged" viewers. Ophuls' approach can irritate; for instance, Washington Post critic Hal Hinson foot-stomped "If this is history, it is history for experts!" The critics too must learn history.


Where Ophuls' passions for truth and justice are classical, the methods that serve them are innovative. Bold, these methods of ''discovery '' include conscious interventions, ground breaking research and spontaneous interviewing. They create what Simpson describes as "situations in which a person reveals himself as a human being." These "situations"—Ophuls' interview-encounters—reveal deep, hidden links between personal life and politics that expose our souls and clarify our social condition.


Ophuls' films are not only conscious of history but self-conscious as well. By design, Ophuls often violates key conventions of documentary film—or TV news—which if left unchallenged could smother the truth. Thus, in The Sorrow and the Pity, Ophuls eliminates the Narrator. The all-knowing "Voice of God," as Simpson puts it, no longer imposes on viewers "The Real Meaning" of what they see. This enables—"compels,'' say detractors—each filmgoer to more closely engage the film and construct his own narrative and meanings! Ophuls' approach allows no "authoritative" or final interpretations; instead it invites and rewards unlimited viewings. Hotel Terminus also bans the "Voice of God" but goes one step further by hauling in the film­maker and putting him on display.

Ophuls' technique consciously disrupts the interviewing. In one intervention, he re-enters the film as a character. Ophuls introduces us to research assistant Dieter Reifarth and assigns roles to both of them in an improvised phone call. Played by the mocking Ophuls, an "oh-so-jovial " German matron pretends interest when Reifarth requests a film interview. "She" suddenly refuses, hanging up once she realizes the film is about "postwar Germany" and "the relations between the victors and the vanquished" (read Americans and Nazis). This intervention violates documentary film convention in several ways. For one, Ophuls abandons the invisibility and relative safety of the filmmaker's role, allowing the audience to experience the humanness of the person making the film. The scene also makes his partisanship crystal clear. Rather than lament the Holocaust, Ophuls openly combats the frightening everyday ''silence'' that protects a fascist past.

Ophuls' intervention highlights how inseparable are his methods from his passions. His technique drops any pretense of the documentarian's detached "objectivity" for an up­ front, engaged stand-anti-fascism. Ophuls consciously leaves himself as open to public criticism as those he interviews. This breach of documentary etiquette outraged critics like Time's Richard Schickel who blasts Ophuls for abandoning "the documentarians traditionally modest on screen role as a reporter in search of a story," and then damns him as "an egotist in search of a platform."

But self-exposure, let's Ophuls ex­pose by artifice what is hidden in life: that so many who know the truth refuse to speak out. The scenario symbolizes what Simpson calls ''an entire set of refusals," the "determined silence'' of the wartime, older generation of Germans. Ophuls' mockery exposes their cynical use of the "right to privacy." "Respectable" people—as well as ex-Nazis—know the facts about and sponsors of Barbie's crimes. They continue to choose silence, anonymity and stay very much off-camera. They would bury their past and with it our history—and our right to know it.


Against this avalanche, Ophuls and his researchers fight an uphill but determined struggle. Simpson directed a 3-6 person research team searching for documents on Barbie and his associates. This discovery-work, mostly "quiet and painstaking," meant mining fragments of the past from mountains of greying, declassified documents in the National Archives. Simpson likened the early archival work to the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark: "[It seemed] like trying to find the ark after it's been crated away in the government's warehouse. After seeing miles of identical crates... it seems surely as lost in the warehouse as under the sands of Egypt."

To researchers, "the government appears as a giant filing cabinet... with each bureaucracy having its own filing system." Fortunately, research for Blowback honed Simpson's skills for deciding which agencies and files would "pay-off." The team struck gold by discovering "the Petersen Bureau," which was Barbie's US.­ funded spy network in Germany. Many of its operatives were ex-Nazis whose wartime deeds were purposely uninvestigated or—like Barbie's—secretly concealed. Hotel Terminus "cracks" the network and interviews one of its members.

The research/"discovery" process included Simpson's expert use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to find and declassify key documents from the bureaucratic labyrinths. FOIA requests are a useful filmmaker's tool if, Simpson advises, used early enough: "As soon as you have a movie in mind, start them!." Secured via FOIA, one of Simpson's prize memos proves that John McCloy, the top U.S. official in occupied Germany, discussed how to "handle" France's persistent requests for Barbie to stand trial for war crimes. Barbie was smuggled to Bolivia.

Another major research task was tracking down people for Ophuls' interviews. Producer John Friedman says the "Nazi-hunting" found many people residing at their wartime addresses. One such discovery in Augsburg turned up a "crash-pad" for ex-Nazis where Barbie hid after the war. Stranger than fiction, a wall plaque shows us it once housed the Brothers Grimm of fairy-tale fame! Barbie is unremarked.

Hotel Terminus depends on the interplay of research and interviews. The archival/FOIA discoveries helped Simpson prepare dossiers on interviewees and hold pre-interview briefing sessions with Ophuls. In Hotel Terminus, Ophuls exposes the films "research infrastructure" in a candid, "real-time " view of the process.

The setting is miles-high La Paz, Bolivia, site of Barbie's fugitive arrival from Germany in 1951 and forced extradition to France in 1985. The scheduled interview is intentionally being delayed—without the subject's knowledge—to enable filming of the pre-interview situation. In one room, Ophuls' crew "chit chats" with the now impatient subject, Barbie's bodyguard/business associate Albert de Castro. In an adjoining room—also unknown to de Castro—journalist Peter McFerrin briefs Ophuls on de Castro's fascist politics and ties to Barbie. Cross-cut editing gives us both events before we see Ophuls "arrive," apologize for his "lateness," blame it on "the altitude sickness" and immediately start interviewing.

The pre-interview "chit chat" and Ophuls' "late arrival" are inten­tional techniques. Only the crew—but never Ophuls—"chit chats," keeping the subject from "rehearsing" a story or role to hide behind. Ophuls "delayed arrival" is intended to ensure that he cannot prompt his subject in advance. In this way Ophuls sets the stage for the encounter to come.


The arena of struggle in Hotel Terminus is Ophuls' interview ­encounters with Barbie's opponents and cohorts, unbowed victims and not-so-innocent bystanders. They engage filmmaker, research team, interviewees and a truly international audience in what Simpson calls ''discovery.''

Ophuls' interviews are compelling. Unpredictable, they can combine his infinite patience with sudden, precise lunges to the jugular that expose the truth. Basically he "lets people speak for themselves, even people he disagrees with or has contempt for... He permits them to tell their story the way they see it," says Simpson. Poised, Ophuls will coax or coerce an "instant of revelation:" a moment, statement, gesture or look through which a person "reveals himself as a human being."

Hotel Terminus' "revelations" are experiential, not merely factual; unfolding or erupting on screen without narration.

While Barbie was awaiting trial in France, Bavaria's Ministry of Justice prepared a formal statement. Ophuls has permission to film an official, Dr. Knittel, reading it—but no subsequent interview! Barbie, the statement declares, is innocent of subjective knowledge of the Final Solution. Why? Since it was a Nazi state secret known only—allegedly—at the top, Barbie could never have known or foreseen the extermination of those he deported. He is therefore "not guilty " of crimes against humanity. The official finishes reading, but the camera keeps running. Ophuls asks him if this was an official judgement or an opinion. As Herr Knittel replies "well it's a guideline," he registers that the camera hasn't stopped. The shock in his eyes and visage expose his cover­ up function more tellingly than any verbal or factual admission.

Another Ophulsian encounter confronts a bad conscience with events that defy: Simone Legrande, a tender and unbowed Auschwitz-survivor, leads Ophuls to an aging building. There Barbie destroyed her childhood, uprooting her and family for deportation to hell. Madame Serres, a neighbor who witnessed the event over 40 years ago, stands at her window mesmerized as Legrande, Ophuls and camera crew draw near. Her past has just returned and the encounter is being filmed.

Quietly, Serres goes crazy. She can't remember or forget Simone's face, or is it the name?—no, the face. She remembers-forgets-remembers the terrible event, makes compas­sionate sounds, but—stricken by "amnesia"—won't admit how she retreated behind her door and hid.

Ophuls' interview encounters reveal deep, hidden links between personal life and politics that expose our souls and clarify our social conditions.

Simone then tells Ophuls how another neighbor, Madame Bon­ tout, tried to save the children from Barbie's clutches and was beaten for her decency.

Ophuls' interviews document Barbie's murderous career, but with a disturbing twist—ultimately, Hotel Terminus is not about Barbie. His career becomes a lens trained on deeper issues and more powerful forces: namely, our complicity with evil and Barbie's real sponsors.

Troubled, Eugene Kolb—one of Barbie's American intelligence supervisors—rationalizes his deployment of ex-Nazis "in a world shot through with moral ambiguity." He insists that Barbie, "a real pro," was "simply too damn good an interrogator" to resort to torture. He's also convinced that Barbie "was not exactly an anti­ Semite;" but, reminded of something, he quickly "balances " the moral scales adding "I wouldn't say he was pro-Semite, either."

Factually, Ophuls could refute Kalb's story in an instant. But allowed to unfold, Kalb's self-deception becomes revelatory. Ophuls discovers real, lived history in the decisive moment when the personal fuses with the political to reveal our condition. The fact is, as Simpson puts it, Kolb "speaks volumes." Through people like Kolb and Polke, Hotel Terminus exposes a U.S.-backed Cold War well underway as early as 1945 (!), for which scores of Nazis—many war criminals like Barbie—were judged indispensable and shielded from arrest. While the politicos justify themselves in the name of "The Cold War," the recruitment and deployment of these mass killers was buried from public awareness.

Ophuls' interviews with Kolb and his fellow agents surgically expose the hierarchy and psychology of official complicity and coverup. The encounters probe and reveal how "controlled ignorance" and bureaucratic buck passing protect those in high places—like High Commissioner McCloy—from public scrutiny and personal responsibility. "McCloy himself," adds Simpson, "refused to be interviewed." Paraphrasing Ophuls, while the field­ hands get interviewed, the policy­ makers get away.

Like all Ophuls' films, Hotel Terminus generates very potent, disturbing issues. So many interviewees justify their "memory lapses" with the same everyday refrain—"...but these things happened 40 years ago"—that it becomes a dark, recurrent joke. In vivid contrast, Ophuls ' remembering that past inspires us with the example of Mme. Bontout courage. By exploring our individual participation in institutional evil, Ophuls' methods show us our souls, reclaim our past from oblivion, and challenge the political structures that sponsor our forgetting.

A great filmmaker, Ophuls' passions challenge us to face and resolve these issues in our daily lives as decidedly as in our films. As a reminder Hotel Terminus final frames dedicate the film to Madame Bontout, "a good neighbor." 

Bob Spiegelman is a freelance writer based in New York