It was 4 am when we stumbled off the bus, shaken and sleep-deprived from the seemingly endless ride from Lima, Peru to the entrance of our hotel in La Paz, Bolivia.
In our case, what usually took 20 hours of driving to make the journey, instead lumbered and rattled crazily along making the trip seem more like two weeks. It was probably a good thing that it was pitch black outside the bus windows much of the time, as it saved us from having to watch the death-defying turns our driver took over the mountainous dusty road.
How do you say in Spanish, “Slow down that’s a 300 meters drop!”?
The long bus drive was first presented to us as an opportunity “to rest and enjoy the dramatic views” after a very difficult week of filming in Lima. I immediately conjured up the image of a big Mercedes bus with all the trimmings like heat, individual reading lights, collapsible cushioned seats for sleeping, and even a bathroom in the back. There were no warnings not to expect too much.
How do you say in Spanish, “Can you turn up the heat in this rattletrap?”
The feature-length film we were making, followed the 40 year-long search for fugitive and former Nazi Gestapo Officer Klaus Barbie, known as “The Butcher of Lyon.” Barbie had been responsible for the torture and deportation of between 4,000 and 14,000 Jews and Resistance fighters during World War II from the headquarters he commanded in Lyon, France. After escaping Europe, he lived and worked fairly openly in Peru and Bolivia under the pseudonym Klaus Altmann where, in 1983, he was finally identified, captured, and extricated back to France.
The big comfortable bus of my imagination wouldn’t have even fit on the roads we followed. Every time the driver revved up the engine and shifted into another gear — which was continual — there was a loud grinding sound and a high-pitched engine noise that startled me out of the edges of sleep. Sleep might just have been possible if it hadn’t been for the non-stop blaring of what might be called “music” through the bus loudspeakers at a volume of +13. How do you say, “Please turn that shit off?”
Exiting the bus and taking my first steps in front of our hotel in La Paz, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt dizzy, my legs were unusually wobbly and my heart was racing. What was this?
La Paz, I’d failed to notice in advance, is one of the highest cities in the world. In meters, it doesn’t sound very high but measured in feet, it’s an impressive 13,500. The altitude hits people differently but almost everyone feels strange.
There were five of us checking in to the hotel. Pablo, a lovely, quiet-spoken soundman we picked up in Lima, a production assistant, Beatriz, also Peruvian who was theoretically a translator-ish, John, the American producer, yours truly, and Marcel Ophuls, the producer/writer/director.
Marcel’s earlier film, The Sorrow and the Pity about French collaboration between the Vichy government and the Nazis during World War II is considered to be one of the most important documentary films ever made. In 1969, the film won the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary Film. The film had a powerful influence on me when I saw it. I took the film’s underlying message about individual responsibility and personal choice very seriously when it came to making decisions in my own life at a time that the Vietnam War was raging. As a result of watching his film, I’d decided to do everything possible not to participant in any way in the war.
The Sorrow and the Pity blew a hole in the common, rather romantic notion that the French had been active as resistance fighters during the German occupation. The film established that many had even been collaborators during the war, some turning in friends and family. The film was banned in France for many years because of its unpopular message. And on some level, I was worried that one day Marcel or Ken Burns might make a film about the choices Americans like me made when it came to participating in the Vietnam War.
Almost 20 years later, Marcel was at it again with this new film.
I was honored to be with him this time around, to be there up close and friendly to watch him work.
A DREAM COME TRUE
I never went to film school and was still in the process of trying to teach myself about filmmaking when Marcel’s visit was announced at The Institute For Policy Studies, a liberal think tank just three blocks from where I lived at the time near Dupont Circle in Washington D.C. How could I not go?
I was riveted by Marcel. By his journey, his stories, and his unique take on filmmaking. He came across as someone who is a lot like his films, smart, angry, articulate, funny, an eye for irony, and quick to call out people who abuse power. After his lecture, I mustered up enough courage to introduce myself to him as a “cinematographer,” and said that I’d love to work with him in the future. It was borderline cheeky/gutsy considering my limited resume and experience at the time.
A few days later I got a call from John Friedman, his producer in New York, wondering if I’d be interested in going to South America to shoot the first wing of their film about Barbie. I was stunned for days by his call. I knew they weren’t interested in me because of my glowing resume. I learned much later that they hadn’t raised much of the budget for the film at that point so my offer on the phone that day with John to “work for peanuts” certainly sweetened the deal. It didn’t hurt that I offered to throw in my camera package and lights and that I spoke Spanish. How do you say in Spanish, “I’ll pay you guys if you let me shoot it for you!”?
At the end of World War II, Barbie didn’t skip a beat, picking up from where he’d left off applying his “skills” as a torturer, and importantly, as an anti-communist in the new Cold War against the Soviet Union. In Bolivia, where he was hiding and where he lived well for 30 years under the assumed name Klaus Altmann, Barbie’s cover had been protected by the CIA in exchange for his work with right-wing dictators and paramilitary groups. Barbie was busier than ever fighting communists all over South America, running drugs and guns, and purportedly helping to track down and kill Che Guevara.
The irony wasn’t missed on anyone that during the time that we were getting the back story to his life as a fugitive in South America, Barbie was sitting in a French prison awaiting trial in the very building where he had set up his Gestapo headquarters. That building, Hotel Terminus, was located next to the central train station in Lyon and from which he ordered the deaths of so many people. When the film was completed, the title was fittingly Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie.
Barbie was not as well-known as many of the other Nazis about whom much had been written and films had been made. And people would ask Marcel why he was making a film about such a “minor” Nazi player like this guy. Marcel would say he was making his film for precisely that reason they were asking: “How many people do you have to torture and kill anyway,” he asked me, “to be considered “worthy” of a film about you?
WHAT IS YOUR NAME?
On the morning of day three, we met at the Cafe La Paz with Peter McFarren the Associated Press correspondent in Bolivia who was helping to connect us around town. At the cafe, a favorite hangout of Barbie’s, Peter showed us the table where Barbie liked to sit with his back against the wall. Over breakfast, we discussed the interview we were about to have in two hours with Barbie’s long-time bodyguard and business partner.
It seemed the high altitude was affecting all of us, creating a feeling of edginess. As much as I wanted coffee, I avoided drinking it for this reason.
After breakfast, we set up for the interview with Alvaro de Castro in Marcel’s hotel room. Castro was a tall handsome Spaniard who seemed proud to have been associated with Barbie all those years. Right from the start, things got weird. Strange weird. Altitude induced strange weird.
Marcel does something a bit unusual in many of his documentaries; appearing as a character in them. Most interviewer questions in documentary films are either cut out entirely or occasionally heard “off-screen.” Marcel often likes to engage with the interviewee. In “The Sorrow and the Pity,” he is seen wandering around a garden, musing out loud, a bit like a detective in a film noir movie.
Since Marcel didn’t speak Spanish, the interview process would be a bit tedious. Marcel would ask the questions in English and Peter or Beatriz would translate the questions to Castro and then the process reversed with Castro’s answers being translated back to Marcel. The process wasted a lot of film in my opinion and we were often trying to find a more efficient way that would save valuable and expensive film stock. In the end, there were more than 120 hours of footage that were cut into a 267-minute long film.
Once we got past the preliminaries before the interview officially began, I had a chance to adjust the lights, and we got a “head slate” to help with syncing the separately-recorded sound, we began.
I was very curious to see how Marcel was going to approach the interview.
Marcel asked Castro a kind of prime-the-pump, obvious softball question. “When did you first meet Klaus Barbie?”
Castro sat up even straighter in his chair, perhaps relieved that this first question was an easy one, and, with what looked to me like a bit of a smirk and a sense of “I’ve got this one,” he said, “I first met Klaus Altman…”
But before he could finish his very first sentence, Marcel interrupted. “What was his name?” Asked almost as if he hadn’t quite heard it correctly.
“Well….,” said the bodyguard with a kind of shoulder shrug.
“Not ‘well’, broke in Marcel yet again, seeming almost to be mocking Castro’s casual tone and raising his voice just a bit. “His name was…Barbie.”
“Well…” repeated the bodyguard as if to say “It doesn’t really matter”…
Castro, of course, was referring to Barbie by his pseudonym, the name made up to disguise his real identity in his adopted country. Everyone in the room knew what his boss’s name really was. Castro too.
Marcel interrupted again, now more loudly, “Not ‘well,’ what was his NAME?”
Castro seemed a little confused. This was supposed to be an easy question.
The altitude most of us felt was helping to raise the feeling of tension in the room. You could cut it with a knife.
Again. “His name was Barbie.” Said Marcel, now seeming to be helping Castro in a softer voice as if coaxing in a frightened animal and throwing him the answer.
Castro was silent, slightly glazed over, seemingly confused by the focus on this apparent “tiny detail.”
In the pause, Marcel again asked “What was his NAME?” almost screaming this time. I was beginning to feel light-headed. Marcel’s voice seemed to take over the room.
Castro still didn’t appear to understand what was happening. He appeared confused but curiously unshaken by Marcel’s strong presence. He may have been working hard to keep his cool since he was getting paid for the interview.
“Now,” Marcel said, lowering his voice and like a lawyer moving in for the kill, “Let’s start over. Tell me when you first met Klaus Barbie.”
Hesitantly like a 6-year-old trying to read a difficult passage in a book, “I – first – met — (he paused to think…then smiled, proud to have gotten the lesson right), “Klaus Barbie in 1959.”
“Thank you,” Marcel said.
My legs were actually shaking from the intensity of the moment. I’ve been involved in a lot of interviews through the years with the great and the near-great, but this moment remains the most amazing interview I’ve ever witnessed.
Castro may have entirely missed the significance of what Marcel was doing, but no one else in the room did. Marcel was saying, in effect, “begin to take responsibility for the man for whom you worked all those years.” It starts with getting his name right. Not his made-up name that was a lie but the real name that belonged to the man. That was the first step.
TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR OWN ACTIONS AND DEEDS
In Marcel’s film “Hotel Terminus,” images of Barbie on trial were a bit haunting to look at. On the one hand, he looked like somebody’s nice grandfather. At the same time, he looked like a proud and heartless, predatory bird of some kind fully capable of going for carnage and helpng to bring about Hitler’s Final Solution. With gusto.
How great it would have been to watch Marcel interview Barbie himself!
The film was a reminder to me of an especially important and timely theme for all of us: that people in positions of authority will abuse their power if they think they can get away with it.
Barbie on trial in Lyon, France
WWII is often depicted as a battle won by good forces over evil. Klaus Barbie was an important chapter in that story. Although eventually convicted of Crimes Against Humanity, unlike the bodyguard who finally got it straight, Barbie never seemed to feel he had gotten any of it wrong at all.
For me, growing up, the Second World War seemed like an important but distant event that took place before my time by people very different from me. But with Marcel telling the story, I was able to see the impact this history had on present events especially so as I write this many years later. And for a second time in 20 years, Marcel made me think about my own life choices in a profound way.
I’ll never get out of my mind the image of Barbie being tried in the same building where he’d tortured so many people. The image of that kind-looking grandfatherly person who perpetrated such evil while “just following orders.”
Hotel Terminus won the Cannes International Critics Award and the Academy Award for Best Documentary. And Rotten Tomatoes gives the film 100%.