Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

"If you use a Nazi war criminal, then where do you draw the line?"

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed and Written by Kevin Macdonald
Produced by Rita Daghe and Macdonald
Released by Weinstein Company via Sundance Selects
France/U.K. 85 min. Rated PG-13
English, French and Spanish with English subtitles.

Kevin Macdonald won an Oscar in 2000 for One Day In September, a step-by-step deconstruction of German incompetence that cost the lives of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. He reconstructed two men's harrowing moral decisions in the face of great physical challenges in Touching The Void (2003). After fictionalizing history in Last King of Scotland, he returned to documentary in 2007 for My Enemy’s Enemy to investigate Germans, morality, and history that's stranger than fiction.

It has taken three years to get this film beyond festival audiences to the public via Sundance Selects video on demand on cable. The delay may be attributed to the troubles of the distributor, the Weinstein Company. But its finger-pointing examination of how a Nazi war criminal influenced U.S. foreign policy for forty years is probably too angry for PBS or the History Channel, with detailed testimony that exposes lurid conspiracy fiction as based on facts. The delay has made its revealing look at the history of torture more relevant today.

One would have thought that Marcel Ophüls' four and a half hour 1988 epic Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie was exhaustively complete about the Gestapo chief in France who was notoriously nicknamed the Butcher of Lyon. But his crimes during World War II, reported here by his victims or their family members, are just the start to establish his pattern of techniques and ruthlessness. As a model for "The Jew Hunter" from Inglourious Basterds, he avoids responsibility for the direct deportation of Jewish children to Auschwitz, but justifies his torture of Resistance leaders with a shrug of wartime necessity.

While Ophüls interviewed U.S. intelligence agents about their lack of moral compunction in comfortably harboring Barbie after the war, Macdonald garners more details from the liaison officers on how Barbie conveniently promoted himself at the opening of the Cold War as a dedicated anti-Communist. In addition to blackmailing postwar French politicians for their wartime collaboration to continue as informants, Barbie offered up evidence he had collected from torturing Communist Resistance fighters as his first bait to hook U.S. protection. He fostered a U.S.-paid network of ex-S.S. to funnel similarly obtained information from throughout Western Europe to the Army's Counter Intelligence Corps. Zeroing in on the written reports these government agents compiled from Barbie's sources, Macdonald's narration notes it was in the Nazis' interest to help the Americans see a Communist behind every bush and exaggerate them in every election to fan U.S. fears.

The image of Dr. Strangelove's unrepentant gloved hand uncontrollably saluting "Heil Hitler!" as he helps the Americans ever more comes to mind after seeing how Barbie was whisked under the new name of Altman to Bolivia in the early 1950's (via a Vatican "ratline" like in The Odessa File), where he and his émigré cronies and allies planned for a Fourth Reich in South America (more easily done than in The Boys from Brazil). (Post-Script: In Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals, broadcast on PBS in 2011, an Argentinian investigative reporter identifies the consecutive entry visas that provided false identities to war criminals and other Nazis.)

Interviews with friends, neighbors, politicians, victims, business associates, ex-generals, and journalists establish how smoothly Barbie insinuated himself into right-wing circles, advising governments and military juntas throughout the region as an expert from the good old days of unfettered torture during the war. (His daughter is in denial even throughout his trial). While Juan Mandelbaum's Our Disappeared (Nuestros desaparecidos) (2008), that was shown on PBS, provided even more excruciating detail on just how uncoincidentally Gestapo-like the Argentine military was in its repression of leftists, Macdonald hones in on Barbie's personal participation, including in the 1967 death of Che Guevera in Bolivia. Macdonald emphasizes how Barbie again played the anti-Communist card to influence American foreign policy in favor of brutal authoritarian regimes in South America.

Barbie was living so openly, flush with government contracts, that the Nazi-hunting Klarsfelds spotted his photograph in newspapers (both are interviewed about their emotional campaign for his extradition). But the military government resisted the international pressure. Interviews, in even more detail than Ophüls included, document the negotiations with the replacement democratically elected administration that finally led to Barbie's peremptory return to France. Barbet Schroeder's Terror's Advocate (2007) provided more background on Barbie's lawyer at his 1984 trial, Jacques Vergès, but his politicized defense strategy of equating Barbie's actions with right-wing colonialists around the world resonates more in this film, and that point was argued before the unsettling similarities to Abu Ghraib and Gitmo.

As convincing as the pile of points is to develop the critical theory of how American foreign policy was based for decades on Nazi manipulations, there are some problems with Macdonald's evidence. Unlike his other noted documentaries that featured eyewitness accounts, he relies, in the South American section particularly, on overheard boasts. The bona fides, let alone the biases, of several of the journalists he interviews for some of the most sensational claims are not clear, though there are many photographs that lend credence to the presumptive connections.

The lessons learned from Barbie to Iraq are brought home by former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, who served on the government commission that declassified the documents Macdonald highlights. She goes beyond her interview with Ophüls to emphatically warn about the moral hypocrisy that results when allying with My Enemy’s Enemy – "If you use a Nazi war criminal, then where do you draw the line?"


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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