I think it’s time to come clean: I’m not a documentary guy. I’ve seen very few, and liked even less. To date, the only documentary I’ve watched that I have any inclination to see again is King of Kong, because fuck Billy Mitchell. I’ve seen Hoop Dreams – it’s OK, but I forgot a lot of it within a week, hence why I never got around to reviewing it for the 1001 Movies list, and thus why I’ll therefore have to watch it again eventually. Night and Fog and Land Without Bread both left me severely depressed, and were both reviewed during a period of my blogging life where I hadn’t quite worked out what I was doing yet, which should go some way to explain the 1/10 scores I gave them (although I kind of stand by that for Land Without Bread, because Luis Bunuel is an utter dick for what he did in order to make that film). Shoah moved me, but the 9 hour running time was almost unbearable. And so it is that on my list of Least Anticipated Movies on the 1001 List I have not one but two long-ass documentaries, with Hotel Terminus being neatly packaged with the similarly 4 1/2 hours long The Sorrow and The Pity, which I look forward to watching later this year. I don’t really know why I’m not a huge fan of documentaries – maybe I’m just not intelligent or receptive enough for them. I’ve had debates with colleagues before as to whether they can really be classed as films of not – I’m fine with the classification, but it seems many others are not – but that hasn’t stopped there being an awful lot included in the 1001 book.
Hotel Terminus takes the relatively standard format of a documentary on the Holocaust, and focuses its interest on one man, Klaus Barbie, who was not terribly well known outside of the war, but evidently played a significant role within the Nazi party. Before viewing, my only knowledge of Barbie came from a short scene in the movie Rat Race, in which Jon Lovitz, Kathy Najimy and their two on-screen kids visit what they believe to be a museum dedicated to the toy doll, but is in fact a shrine to the Nazi. Hilarity ensues. I’d like to say that now I have a much clearer picture of the times and tribulations of Barbie’s life, having sat through the entirety of this documentary, but alas I cannot. You see, the problem with a 267-minute runtime (conveniently chopped up into 19 pieces on Youtube) is that there was so much information crammed into the film that there was just too much for me to handle, and as such I couldn’t take any of it in. The areas of the film that made the most impact in fact had very little to do with Barbie, and were more about the emotions of the people involved. One, and the fact that this came in the last few minutes of the film may have something to do with how much I remember, sees a woman returning to the building from which she and her family were taken many years ago. She tells the story of how her parents were taken away and, as she too was escorted out of the building as a young child, one of her neighbours attempted to pry her from the SS troops, only to be beaten for doing so. Upon the girl’s return she is confronted not with the neighbour who tried to help, but with another, now an old woman, who hid behind her door and did nothing. The gut-wrenching emotions shown here are aggravating, infuriating, sickening and heart-breaking, which is why they were included, showing the very personal impact Barbie’s work had on people at the individual level. However, this scene could have easily been included within any Holocaust documentary, as it was only tangentially connected to Barbie, and the same story could well have been told about thousands of families that had nothing to do with him.
The documentary is compiled of a collection of archive footage alongside dozens of interviews with various people involved in Barbie’s life. There’s the bellboy who worked at the Hotel Terminus, the base from which Barbie conducted his torturings of victims, people who worked alongside him throughout his “career”, and people more personally close to the man, be they childhood friends (who describe him as “Atrocious, monstrous, but all together ordinary”), neighbours and even his daughter. We’re given an insight into Barbie’s youth – he was bright and ambitious, taking his Latin exam early, but was beaten for repeating Nazi slogans at school “before they were cool,” – yet still it is the moments that have less to do with Barbie that are more interesting. The documentarian – Marcel Ophuls – attempts on several occasions to interview people who clearly do not wish to be either spoken to or filmed, and their efforts to prevent this from occuring are often entertaining. A woman explains that she did well at school one day, and on her way home the baker rewarded her by letting her skip ahead in line. When she got home she was shepherded off by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp, and if she hadn’t skipped the line she might not have been caught. It’s fascinating stuff, but the fact that it may have been Barbie that was behind her capture has nothing to do with how interesting the story is, it’s just a very lose and ultimately unnecessary peg upon which to hang the film. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you were to remove the Barbie-centred segments, you’d result in a film with a much more manageable length, that was actually more informative, and ultimately devastating.
As with Shoah, the finished film is very impressive in terms of the amount of work that has obviously gone into its production. A great deal of attention has been paid to the editing, which often features multiple interviews being spliced between one another to really drive home a point. This however overcomplicated things, as it made the point hard to follow – especially where each interviewee spoke a different language and occasionally through an interpreter – so I often lost the point that was trying to be made. There’s too much to take in, and the film is too long to warrant a re-visit to try and catch what was going on. Towards the end I found myself sitting through it as more on an endurance challenge than anything else, which is most definitely not the sign of a great movie. And on top of that, all I really took away from the film was that one specific Nazi was a terrible human being, which is an awful lot less than I knew before going into the film. Like I said, if you lose the Barbie focus and simply looked at the more personal stories of the victims of the war you’d have a much more engaging piece of work. However, that’s all been done before, so the Barbie niche is probably the only reason this film was made.
Choose life 5/10