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Directors in Focus
Marcel Ophüls: The Interrogating Eye

A master of the grand-scale documentary, Marcel Ophüls has crafted a compelling body of work that questions the nature of truth, history, and testimony. The German-born Ophüls came as a youth to Hollywood when his father, famed director Max Ophüls, was forced to leave Germany and, eventually, France. Receiving an education at Hollywood High and later at Berkeley, Ophüls returned to France and began his filmmaking career as an assistant to such directors as John Huston, Julien Duvivier, and Anatole Litvak. After producing some unremarkable fiction works and working for French and German television, Ophüls turned his attention to the production of his acclaimed indictment of French collaboration with the Nazis, The Sorrow and The Pity. Since that time, he has continued to employ the documentary form not simply to record events but to interrogate the core of some of history’s most problematic social and political issues.

All prints in this series are drawn from the Harvard Film Archive collection.


April 19 (Saturday) 7 pm

The Sorrow and the Pity

Directed by Marcel Ophüls
France/West Germany/Switzerland 1971, 35mm, b/w, 265 min.
French, German, and English with English subtitles

In 1972, Marcel Ophüls challenged the conventional wisdom of France regarding its role in World War II. The Sorrow and the Pity documents the occupation of France during the second World War, the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Germans, and the human tragedy that resulted from that collaboration. What made the film more than just a pictorial record of archival evidence, however, was Ophüls’s use of incisive contemporary interviews, intercut with the wartime news footage, in which French, German, and English subjects recollect the times and their attitudes toward them, then and now. Responses that ranged from regret to rationalization to outright denial contribute to a powerful examination of how historical events are absorbed into the public psyche.

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April 20 (Sunday) 7 pm

Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie

Directed by Marcel Ophüls
France/US 1988, 35mm, color, 267 min.
French with English subtitles

Marcel Ophüls’s epic documentary on Klaus Barbie, the Nazi war criminal known as "The Butcher of Lyons," was gleaned from 120 hours of interviews with, among others, the Gestapo officer’s victims, his Nazi colleagues, French resistance members, local collaborators, indifferent neighbors in Bolivia (where he escaped after the war), American intelligence agents who employed him in anti-Communist espionage efforts during the Cold War, and an ideologue leftist lawyer who defends him at his ultimate trial in 1987 in Lyons. Ophüls’s investigation, which took place over the course of four years while waiting for the trial to commence, is anything but meditative: as he becomes increasingly frustrated with the reticence of his subjects to talk, the director becomes by turns angry, impatient, and sarcastic. The result is a spellbinding study of the vortex of terror and banality that surrounds this unreconciled chapter from the past.

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April 22 (Tuesday) 7 pm

A Sense of Loss

Directed by Marcel Ophüls
US/Switzerland 1972, 35mm, color, 135 min.

A year after examining life in occupied France in the 1940s in The Sorrow and the Pity, Ophüls trained his camera on the participants in a contemporary conflict: the troubles in Northern Ireland. Without the benefit of distance or the framework of a resolution, he wades into the midst of the conflict and interviews people—from political leaders to average citizens—on both sides. Among these voices are those of a couple mourning the death of their 17-month-old child, well-known figures such as Bernadette Devlin and Ian Paisley, old women bedecked in Union Jack attire, and children who walk daily through an armed war zone. As Ophüls documents the consequences of senseless acts of violence on everyday life, images of barbed wire and rifles bring an eerie sense of connection to his previous study of wartime France.

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