“There are no angels in politics or war” says one of the dozens of interviewees in Marcel Ophüls’ nearly four-and-one-half-hour indictment of the “Butcher of Lyon.”
The extremely detailed account of Klaus Barbie’s infamy (systemic torture and murder), post-war employment (after World War II the U.S. government hired the wily killer as part of its Counter Intelligence Corp even as he slipped over to Argentina then Bolivia) and extradition (40 years after the fact, he was convicted in France on several counts of crimes against humanity, sentenced to life and died four years later in jail) is yet another example of the human race at its worst.
Chillingly similar to Downfall (cross-reference below), innocent children are key to the story (under Barbie’s orders, which he personally supervised, forty-four Jewish orphans were herded up in Izieu and shipped to their deaths at Auschwitz). In just one of many masterstrokes in this extensive narrative, Ophüls employs the heavenly voices of the Vienna Boys Choir (German folk songs accompanied by energetic winds—the piccolo is especially apt) to underscore the horror of extinguishing young lives just because their heritage made them unworthy of sharing the planet with the chosen race.
One of the most revealing interviews is with Barbie’s daughter, Ute Messner. She recalls a “very happy family” where we would be “singing all the time,” and that her father played the piano. What better way, then, to open the film than with an appropriately tortured rendition of the “Adagio cantabile” from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.8 in C Minor, Op. 13, “Appassionata.”
In and around this conversation, the filmmaker/interviewer disagrees with French prosecutor Pierre Truche that Barbie’s “daughter knew him best.” Ophüls vigourously infers that she would have been too young to be aware, much less fully appreciate the deadly bully’s crimes. This heated exchange, like several others, anticipates Michael Moore’s (who must be a huge fan) near-entrapment techniques and somewhat-unbalanced approach which both employ in their zeal to get at the whole truth (cross-reference below).
The point is made by Barbie’s lawyer, Jacques Vergès, that—and as just one example—given the atrocities committed by the French army in Algeria (where individuals routinely defended their heinous actions because “we were at war and under orders”), it would be an act of supreme hypocrisy to put away Barbie for his. The jury didn’t agree.
Many tales of betrayal (notably René Hardy whose actions led to the death of Resistance leader, Jean Moulin) and internal jealousies properly added many shades of gray to denialists’ preference for black-and-white characterizations and motivations on both sides of the vicious conflict. Clearly, self-serving actions from all parties (whether French, German, Jew or gypsy) took place, making any air-tight “j’accuse” all the more difficult. Still, those unfortunate incidents can readily be overcome by just selecting or presenting “the facts we like.”
Fortunately, systemic torture, sudden disappearances of “the enemy” and kangaroo courts are things of the past. We’re far too civilized to ever let such ugly history repeat itself, much less broadcast any such events to the rest of the planet. JWR