NEW YORK — Marcel Ophuls, acknowledged as one of the world's foremost documentary makers, is given to obsessions and this new obsession is his most ambitious project. For more than two years, he has been consumed with putting the life and times of 73-year-old Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie on the screen. Lugging camera equipment to three continents, Ophuls has been uncovering the Gestapo leader's secrets in Germany, France, Bolivia and Peru.
"Making this film," Ophuls said from Paris, "is like an intense fight for the survival of memory itself. I want Barbie to be judged so that what he did is burned into history and will never happen again."
Ophuls and his tiny crew have tracked down people who supposedly knew Barbie and coaxed them to talk on camera--the torturers, the survivors of the death camps, French collaborators, Barbie's shady Bolivian arms trafficking partners, former American intelligence officers who recruited Barbie as a spy in postwar Germany.
While struggling with the daunting task of condensing 97 hours of film into 2 1/2 hours, Ophuls, 59, is also agonizing about a more formidable problem: making a documentary about an event that is still taking place. If the long-awaited trial of the Butcher of Lyons begins May 11, Ophuls said he will have to leave the editing room and return to Lyons--the scene of the crimes and the trial. He will have to shoot and integrate more footage into "Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie."
The Samuel Goldwyn Co. will distribute the film in the U.S.; Orion Pictures International holds overseas rights.
Since Barbie's secret expulsion from Bolivia to France in 1983, many French have speculated that he will never stand trial and will remain in St. Joseph Prison--near the Hotel Terminus, the Gestapo headquarters where Barbie conducted torture and where Ophuls conducted interviews.
At the trial, Barbie and his lawyer, Jacques Verges, the enfant terrible of the French Left, are expected to make embarrassing accusations about French collaboration during the Occupation and point the finger at prominent French politicians and businessmen who helped carry out the Final Solution.
"The French are not the only ones who may be embarrassed by l'affaire Barbie, " Ophuls said. At the moment, he was editing segments related to the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps, the forerunner of the CIA, which employed Barbie four years as an informer while he was hunted by the French.
The U.S. government provided Barbie and his family with character references and false papers (with the identity Klaus Altmann) and organized their escape via the so-called Rat Line to South America.
The iconoclastic Ophuls is no stranger to controversy. His award-winning "The Sorrow and the Pity" (1972), about French collaboration with the Nazis, was a landmark. French television banned it for nine years because it threatened to "cure" French historical amnesia, revealing that many French under the Vichy regime embraced Nazism. Another jolting documentary, "The Memory of Justice" (1976), probed moral issues raised by the Nuremburg trial, Vietnam and Algeria.
"I'm a German Jew with French and American nationality--the classic wandering Jew," Ophuls said. He recalled spending his childhood fleeing Hitler. His father, famed director Max Ophuls ("Lola Montes," "La Ronde"), fled Frankfurt with his family in 1933, first to Paris, then Hollywood.
"The Barbie idea came from a transatlantic phone call in 1984, from the editor of the Nation to see if I'd cover the Barbie trial," Ophuls said. "While doing pretrial research and interviews, I realized the story should be told with a camera."
An American, John S. Friedman, a former professor of literature, contacted him and offered to produce the film. "I was stunned when French investors--the logical supporters of the project--gave us the cold shoulder," said Friedman. He has raised about $750,000 of the $1-million budget--all from Americans.
He joined forces with Hamilton Fish III, who produced "Memory of Justice" with L.A. businessman Max Palevsky. They let Ophuls start filming--gambling that the trial would be repeatedly delayed by the French.
"Every few weeks there was a rumor the trial was imminent," said Ophuls. "Then rumors the trial was too politically explosive and would never be held; then rumors that key witnesses and Barbie were in failing health. Should we wait or should we roll? We decided to roll."
Ophuls, Friedman, a soundman, a cameraman and a translator/researcher met in Peru in June, 1985.
"We captured some emotionally charged interviews with the key figures in Barbie's life--interviews that we might not have gotten if we'd waited for the trial," said Ophuls. In any case, only a government camera will be allowed in the courtroom, and the film will not be released for twenty years. Like the 1962 Eichmann trial, "Barbie's trial will influence the way a generation judges history," Ophuls said.