David Thomson called it “rich, complex, humane, mysterious, and determinedly calm.” Siskel & Ebert thought it was “shocking” and “unforgettable,” and The New York Times said that it “gathers the force and the momentum of a freight train that will not be stopped or sidetracked.” So why has Marcel Ophuls’ Academy Award-winning documentary, Hotel Terminus (1988), taken so many years to make it to DVD?
The answers might have to do with the film’s length (267 minutes) and subject (Klaus Barbie, a Nazi war criminal known as “The Butcher of Lyons”). And yet, Hotel Terminus is far from interminable: Ophuls—son of director Max Ophuls—spent years making the documentary, conducting scores of interviews, shooting well over a hundred hours of film, and asking questions that went far beyond the scope of his audience’s expectations—and, ultimately, comfort zones. “How many French people did this?” Ophuls asked, in an essay written for the documentary’s press kit at Cannes. “How many French people did that? How many of them helped Barbie? How many of them helped Jean Moulin [the French resistance hero whom Barbie personally tortured to death]?” The answers are fascinating, and the film itself is angrier, funnier, and no less gripping than Ophuls’ own, previous masterpiece, The Sorrow and the Pity.
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