“With Ophuls too we need to be on our guard, given the idiosyncratic way he shapes material. There is often a tricky leakage of voice-over between successive scenes: at one point, when the director appears to be philosophizing over images, his voice-over turns out to be an actual question he is posing to a witness – but we only discover this at the end of the sentence.”
My first encounter with the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) was through its energetic young director, Roxanne Sayegh. At a Cannes screening of Un Voyageur, Marcel Ophuls’ deceptively straight autobiography, Sayegh told me about her plan to mount a complete retrospective of Ophuls’ documentaries: a big undertaking, given that some of these films have never been screened in North America.
As it turns out, Ophuls was one of many attractions at RIDM. The breadth of the selection here, from imaginative and semi-experimental works to investigative reports, gives us the chance to observe trends in reality-based filmmaking: in other words, we get to see what current directors think documentary is for. There were many films dedicated to the heralding and preserving of marginal communities (Priscila Padilla Farfan’s The Eternal Night of Twelve Moons, which depicts the rites of passage of indigenous Colombians), and in a related theme, a number of tributes to gleaners of various kinds (from the collectors of faded images in Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project to the literary decoders of The Joycean Society). However, the most provocative films were not about the discovery of far-out phenomena; they were more intent on providing a record of independent thinking, in which consensus reality must be questioned. The archetypal figure in this tradition is, of course, Ophuls. The highlights of the festival were the director’s Q&A in which he was invited to scrutinize his own legacy, and the screenings of his two monumental films, both relentless interrogations of motive: The Sorrow and the Pity (Le Chagrin et la Pitié) and Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie.
The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) does not have a reputation as an impish, sly movie. From its quoting in Annie Hall (1977) and pop culture, one might suppose that the film was a heavy but necessary slog, which would leave one feeling exhausted and virtuous. A fresh screening reveals how fast-moving and surprising this post-Holocaust film is; even at 256 minutes, it is so deftly edited that it demands repeat viewing. With the parade of interviewees before us – former Nazi officers, collaborators, and French civilians whose status is uncertain – we must try to pick up the nuances of facial expressions and to work out whether appearances are deceiving.
It is the latter group – the “ordinary” people whose intentions are unclear – that Ophuls is most interested in studying. Will they submit to an examination of their motives? Will they admit to some degree of culpability, or will they fall back on euphemisms such as sorrow and pity? Perhaps understandably, most people would rather cover up than go to an uncomfortable place. You’ve never seen so many hedging responses and delay tactics: in the face of a probing question, faces furrow and brows are scrunched, as if struggling to locate a truth. But inevitably, that truth proves elusive, and the eyes end up moving to the right (a “tell” that some psychologists associate with lying). People scan the sky for new answers, but amnesia descends at convenient times.
What the interviewees do remember is equally revealing. People talk of having meals ruined and sports events interrupted. Details of violence may be forgotten, but there are references to delicious lunches and the pleasures of hunting. Pettiness is a subject that intrigues Ophuls, in that it exposes people’s preoccupations: some interviewees only come to life when issues of status are brought up. A former Wehrmacht captain can’t resist throwing in markers of his own authority, reasserting the hierarchy of the Reich. Watching these interviews, we can only reflect that Ophuls must be some kind of charmer, able to put these officers at ease, to the extent that they flaunt their rank in the regime. He chats with one particularly jovial ex-Nazi over a linen table and good glassware, while the man proudly holds forth.
For Ophuls, these petty aspects are the most telling. The film emphasizes the importance of the incidental and the supposedly trivial in cultural memory. Alongside many interviewees, there are unidentified people in the frame: presumably friends and relatives, looking bored or sceptical. There is a strange casualness about these faces, considering the topics that are being discussed. In historical terms, Ophuls is more interested in the spectator than the protagonist: he wants to look at the people who declare themselves indifferent to politics, the viewer who is tired of hearing about the Holocaust.
With the people who are suspected of being collaborators, what we often get is an appearance of neutrality. There is a careful and “impartial” use of language when speaking of the past. We hear the kind of measured tone that falls just short of apology: unfortunate events may have occurred, but what could one man do in the face of history?
This throwing up of hands is exactly what Ophuls militates against. Today, those who collaborated are regretful and sorrowful, but what is that worth? Sorrow (le chagrin) is a sweet word that implies no accountability. Even the Holocaust is quickly assimilated into a normalized history, in which events are seen as inexorable. Ophuls wants to know what choices were made on the way to feeling pity and sorrow – or at least for people to acknowledge the existence of a choice.
The control of language and imagery here is explicitly linked to cinema. We see how German newsreels were edited, so that black soldiers who happened to expose their teeth were made to look snarling and savage. Hitler was well aware of the showbiz aspects of war, seeing movies as a Jewish industry that must be remastered to reflect nationalist interests. German and French officials were quick to graft specific associations – barbarism, cowardice, Englishness – onto chance events, hoping to produce a narrative of British arrogance and desertion. In this film, history-making is an ongoing, competitive industry, in which nothing is settled or inevitable. There will always be people scurrying around to create the illusion of narrative.
With Ophuls too we need to be on our guard, given the idiosyncratic way he shapes material. There is often a tricky leakage of voice-over between successive scenes: at one point, when the director appears to be philosophizing over images, his voice-over turns out to be an actual question he is posing to a witness – but we only discover this at the end of the sentence. Ophuls challenges the viewer by introducing information that upends what we thought we heard before – hence the need for so much replaying. The tail end of a scene throws the start into question, requiring us to rewatch the sequence, or even the entire film, from the beginning.
Hôtel Terminus (1988) represents another attempt to jolt the viewer into alertness: to cut through any sense of Holocaust fatigue. In Lyon, a particular kind of ennui has come to be associated with Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo captain known as the Butcher. Locals just don’t feel like thinking about him, and they find curious ways to justify their lack of interest. For some, digging up history is simply tiresome, and we should let bygones be bygones. For others, Barbie’s actions in the war pale beside their recollections of him as a child. They remember his politeness, love for animals, musical gifts, and leadership skills, and somehow their view of character remains fixed on those impressions. During these descriptions, the camera gazes at the face of Barbie as a boy and young man, looking for signs of the Butcher.
Thousands of people died through Barbie’s actions, but those who did not suffer (German soldiers, Nazi sympathizers) talk about him at leisure. During these interviews, Ophuls makes quick cuts to scars on the bodies of the man’s victims, which we register as sharp blows to the system. The film then moves on, not diluting the effect of these shots. Instead, we find out that Barbie was praised by US intelligence as a “Nazi idealist” suited to anti-Communist espionage. When Ophuls questions the agent who wrote that report, he admits he can’t account for it – once again, selective vagueness is a factor.
As in The Sorrow and the Pity, most of the interviewees are not used to being on camera, and thus they are unskilled in the art of looking honest. What happens, then, when Ophuls confronts people who are good at controlling their faces? One of these is the fascinating lawyer Jacques Vergès, an ex-freedom fighter in Algeria who defended Barbie and went on to represent various Holocaust deniers and members of the Khmer Rouge. His face holds no trace of the huge swings in his life, so we can make nothing of his behaviour. Other disarming characters include a likeable but cunning US official, who uses the tactic of conceding small points to the other side so as to sound reasonable and balanced. Most of all, there is Barbie himself, who as seen in footage from his later years in Bolivia, has intelligent and even warm-looking eyes.
And then there is Ophuls himself, who shifts in size and status throughout his films. We are very mindful of his presence at all times – he makes us aware of his great restraint in talking to suspected war criminals, not setting off any alarm bells until he gets the decisive moment on tape. Occasionally he is a bigger, bullying presence who gives himself sarcastic lines before the cut. The forensic focus on each interviewee extends to the director himself, particularly when he consults filmmakers such as Claude Lanzmann to provide alternative slants on the same subject.
In his appearance at the festival to discuss Hôtel Terminus, Ophuls was careful to identify the limits of his own work. He tried to downplay any certainty about morality in his films: “Movies are meant for themselves, I don’t think movies are there to teach us anything . . . When it happens, it happens by chance, when people already want to change.” Asked if he has ever been guilty of selective omission, he described the “twisted journalistic” tricks he uses to open up interviewees, techniques that are “nothing to be proud of.” At the age of 86, Marcel Ophuls is still wary of comfort, still allergic to consoling thoughts. His style consists of not letting anybody off the hook, least of all oneself.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film(s) being discussed.