Critical Filmmaker Bringing War Documentaries to Life

Marcel Ophuls is one of Germany’s best known documentary filmmakers, celebrated for his provocative investigations of crimes against humanity. But he sometimes wishes he had made some comedies.
On set during the filming of Hotel Terminus.


From Nazi criminals to the Vietnam war, Marcel Ophuls’ documentary films tackle some of the most difficult themes of the 20th century.

Mr. Ophuls, whose father, the German-Jewish filmmaker Max Ophüls, made movies about life and love, once said it would have been nice to have made some comedies.

There is little, if any, humor in many of the movies he has made. They reflect the turbulence of wars and their aftermath in the second half of the previous century.

His most critically acclaimed films include “The Harvest of My Lai” about the Viet Nam war, “November Days” about the fall of the Berlin wall  “The Troubles We’ve Seen” about war reporters.

Mr. Ophuls was born in Frankfurt and raised in Berlin. After the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, his family moved to Paris and then to Los Angeles. His father urged him to read Goethe to retain his German identity but at the same time to convert to Catholicism and take American citizenship.

It’s easier to win an Oscar for a film about a concentration camp than it is with a comedy.

Mr. Ophuls served as an American soldier in Japan during World War II before returning to a Europe to launch a career as a filmmaker.

The films Mr. Ophuls has made closely investigate that past, from the crimes of the Vichy regime to the Nazi criminals. They search for justice and ask questions about guilt, morality and responsibility.

Over the years, Mr. Ophuls has found answers to these questions by tracking down all kinds of people in a wide range of settings.

He has a refined art of questioning, which seems harmless, until he applies it with persistence.  One example is Karl Dönitz, the German naval admiral whom he confronted  about his use of slave labor for ship building during the war.

“It’s easier to win an Oscar for a film about a concentration camp than it is with a comedy,” Mr. Ophuls once said. "The themes in my films automatically have a weight and meaning I feel a bit uncomfortable with."

His film “Das Haus Nebenan,” a tale of a town in France during the war, shocked French society and helped changed the way the country saw itself. Although acknowledging cases of heroism, Mr. Ophuls put aside the myth of French resistance to the Nazis and pointed to deeply rooted anti-Semitism in the country. He also explored the highly charged conflict between the conservative monarchists and the communist resistance.

Charles de Gaulle, a former leader of the resistance and later president of France, prevented the film from being shown on French television; it wasn’t broadcast until 1981. "If I hadn’t made a film about it, some one else would have," Mr. Ophuls said."But maybe not as good."

For “Hotel Terminus,” he followed the court case against the SS torturer Klaus Barbie, known as the "butcher of Lyon." He ran into trouble as the case was stalled by François Mitterrand, who, he said, “was afraid that Barbie would implicate a war criminal he knew.”

Critics have said that Mr. Ophuls’ films don’t document history but bring it to life.

The case dragged on for years but wasn't dropped.  Mr. Ophuls tracked down witnesses, speaking with Mr. Barbie’s school friends, SS colleagues, neighbors and business associates as far away as Bolivia. He amassed 120 hours of material, before breaking down in the cutting room.

Eventually, Mr. Ophuls finished the film, “Hotel Terminus,” and won an Oscar for it in 1989. In the film, he doesn't condemn Mr. Barbie.   As always, Mr. Ophuls asks questions that probe the behavior of people involved with war criminal, their courage, their guilt and their attempts to escape their roles as a wheel in the system.

Critics have said that Mr. Ophuls’ films, with their impassioned interrogation of the principal actors and the side players, don’t document history but bring it to life.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]