Tuesday, November 2, 2010

#88. Hotel Terminus (1988)

Synopsis: 1988 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, the film is a brilliant examination of Klaus Barbie, the infamous Nazi Butcher of Lyon and Gestapo chief implicated in 4000 deaths and the deportation of 7000 Jews, during the Nazi occupation of France. Tracing the 40-year hunt for the war criminal, it exposes a complex web of political intrigue, collaboration and deceit. The documentary weaves together historical footage and interviews with former Nazis, American intelligence officers, South American government officials, victims of Nazi atrocities and witnesses.

You wouldn't think that a nearly four and a half hour documentary, comprised mostly of interviews and archival footage, would be as fascinating as Hotel Terminus proves to be; but then, most four and a half hour documentaries aren't about Klaus Barbie. 

Director Marcel Ophuls digs deep, turning over every stone he comes across in his quest to uncover as much of this man's life as possible. A visit to the village where Barbie grew up, where most didn't have a bad word to say about the little boy they knew as “Sonny”, serves as a sharp contrast to later scenes, in which victims of Barbie's cruel interrogation methods describe, in shocking detail, the torture they were subjected to. In these early moments, Ophuls focuses on painting as complete a picture of Barbie as he can, hoping to reveal how a well thought-of Catholic boy who once dreamed of becoming a priest could have grown into such a violent, sadistic war criminal. 

The film then shifts gears, turning its focus away from Barbie the man and placing it directly on the system that allowed this particular war criminal to remain free for almost 30 years, probing deeply, often obtrusively, into this disturbing story, and angrily challenging a number of government officials with some extremely difficult questions. 

By poking into corners and opening doors that many hoped would remain closed forever, Marcel Ophuls has crafted a singularly engrossing documentary, one that, thanks to the tenacity of it's director, utilizes every one of it's 267 minutes to perfection.

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