FROM the moment it appeared at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, ``Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie'' has been one of the most celebrated documentaries in recent memory. Running about 4 hours, it focuses on a former Nazi who was convicted of war crimes - the killing and deportation of victims numbering in the thousands - and sentenced to life imprisonment in France last year. The picture was produced and directed by Marcel Ophuls, a renowned filmmaker who's made the Nazi period his specialty - although he's also made a film on problems in Northern Ireland and even, years ago, a French comedy with Jeanne Moreau.
Although he's best known for his exhaustive accounts of the Nazi era, Mr. Ophuls in person is an easygoing man with a healthy sense of humor - and irony - about his career.
He says he'd love to make regular entertainment movies, if only someone in Hollywood would hire him. He even speaks of his massive documentaries in terms of ``show business,'' and says he'd like to be more than just ``the `Sorrow and the Pity' man'' to movie audiences. That's a half-joking reference to his first major film, ``The Sorrow and the Pity,'' about collaboration between French citizens and Nazis during Germany's occupation of France.
Yet the subjects of Nazism and World War II evidently have an endless fascination for Ophuls, whose filmography includes not only ``The Sorrow and the Pity'' but also ``The Memory of Justice,'' a 4-hour examination of the Nuremberg war-crimes trials. ``Hotel Terminus'' finds him immersed as deeply as ever in similar issues. As its subtitle indicates, it centers on Klaus Barbie's role in the unspeakably sad chronicle of Nazi atrocities. Yet it goes way beyond the career of this particular war criminal, revealing the thoughts and feelings of many people whose lives were affected by his.
It also asks whether, this long after the fact, the Holocaust is still a relevant subject for most people. In one of the film's many poignant interviews, Ophuls asks Elizabeth Holtzman, a New York City district attorney and social activist, whether ``only Jews and old Nazis are still interested in Jews and old Nazis.'' She replies that the issue of Nazi war criminals - and their role in postwar American history - first came to her attention through the efforts of a non-Jew who was ``horrified, as a human being, that ... our [American] government could protect Nazi war criminals living here, and allow them to stay here.'' This reflects Ophuls's own view and his special interest in links between Barbie and the US government.
Moviegoers who see ``Hotel Terminus'' frequently comment on two unexpected omissions. One is the absence of ``atrocity footage'' showing graphic evidence of the torture, degradation, and misery that took place in concentration camps and other Nazi strongholds.
Ophuls deliberately left out such material on the ground that audiences have become inured to it through earlier Holocaust movies. He is also aware that Claude Lanzmann's epic ``Shoah,'' a film that deals specifically with the effects of Nazism on European Jewry, similarly relies on newly filmed interviews rather than archival footage from the Holocaust itself.
Also missing from ``Hotel Terminus'' is a prolonged look at Klaus Barbie, who is seen in the film for only a few scattered moments. This is partly because he avoided the public spotlight for much of his life. But it's also because Ophuls had no particular interest in Barbie - or, by this stage in his filmmaking career, in the Nazi phenomenon - when he started work on the project. Rather, he was interested in things about Barbie - especially the way such a monster was able to move and operate far beyond the sphere of Hitler's activities, even receiving aid from the United States government at one point in his life. Beyond this, Ophuls wanted to attack an even larger subject that he sums up in one word: networks.
``Hotel Terminus,'' he explains, is about ``networks of complicities'' between those branded as war criminals and others who have - wittingly or not - allowed their crimes to be perpetrated. This is, according to Ophuls, ``the underbelly of modern conscience.'' Exploring it through film, he says, was an attempt to pinpoint ``the link that Barbie provides between National Socialism and `the Thousand-Year Reich' and modern cynicism.''
Ophuls had his own first encounter with Nazism when he was still a child and his Jewish family fled from Germany to France. During the Nazi occupation there, his father - Max Ophuls, a renowned movie director - moved the family again, to the United States. Marcel attended Hollywood High School in California, then served in Japan with the US Army. Later he returned home and went into the film industry like his father before him.
After two previous films on the Nazi period, Ophuls would never have begun ``Hotel Terminus'' unless something about its subject had an urgency for him beyond historical importance alone. What drew him into the project was a conviction that Nazi immorality isn't buried in the past, but still reverberates in today's world. This is why he brought interviews with Holocaust survivors into the dense and complex fabric of ``Hotel Terminus.''
``The victims and survivors of Barbie's crimes are there,'' says Ophuls about his film, ``to remind us ... how ludicrous and how far removed from any kind of moral reality the [Nazis] were. And how far the world we live in is removed from rational, moral reality. And how much further we're getting from it. I think Barbie - and his career, and the way he was able to swim in cosmopolitan waters - is a classic example of that. And a very rare example, because usually they don't get caught; or they don't get caught that late [in their careers]; or they don't get caught in the limelight.''
``Hotel Terminus'' deals not only with Barbie's victims, but also with those who worked with him. Through on-screen interviews, the film tells how the American government employed him after World War II, and how he then lived comfortably in Bolivia for many years. To document these and other points, Ophuls filmed more than 120 hours of interviews that were ultimately whittled down to the ``mere'' 4-hour running time of ``Hotel Terminus.''
Ophuls says he could have made the film shorter by using a so-called omniscient or ``voice-of-God'' narrator. But he says movies with narrators manipulate their audiences. He's against this, and he quotes an old Hollywood picture to make his point. ``It's what has given documentaries a bad reputation,'' he says about moviemaking with voice-over narration. It's gray, and it's too easy to do. ... It's illustrated editorials.
``It also lends itself to propaganda in wartime, and to the legitimizing of all kinds of `isms.' As Lionel Barrymore said in `You Can't Take It With You,' I don't like the `isms.' I don't like voice-of-God commentary because I don't like ideology!''