German-born director Marcel Ophuls has dedicated his career to shattering cultural myths about the darkest moments of the 20th century. His documentaries, some more than four hours long, stand as reminders of the human capacity for bravery, cowardice and indifference in the face of evil.
Ophuls, the son of Hollywood director Max Ophuls, attended Hollywood High School and Occidental College. He’s now 89 and lives in a village in the French Pyrénées, but he plans to return to Los Angeles for “Shadows of the 20th Century: Ophuls Film Festival,” scheduled for June 1-8 at UCLA and other venues. The series of screenings and discussions will feature the filmmaker in conversation with Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, scholars and students.
Ophuls’ best-known documentaries address the desire for justice and the denial of responsibility in a trilogy of Holocaust-themed films: “The Sorrow and the Pity” (1969), about France’s occupation during World War II; “The Memory of Justice” (1976), about the Nuremberg Trials; and “Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie,” a portrait of the Nazi war criminal for which Ophuls won the 1989 Academy Award for best documentary.
Unlike a journalist who might attempt to remain unbiased, Ophuls has a clear point of view in his interviews.
“All of the documentaries I’ve made are controversial and they’re always highly subjective,” he said in a phone interview. “They are based on my opinions and sometimes my moods. I’m the man behind the camera. … I don’t hide my feelings and I don’t hide my convictions.”
Ophuls’ current project, “Unpleasant Truths,” which focuses on the Israel-Palestine conflict, is entangled in financial and legal troubles and may never be completed. He’s currently dealing with a court case involving his former co-director, Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan, while trying to raise money to edit the footage he already has.
“I consider Gaza to be a concentration camp,” Ophuls said. “For Jews who consider themselves right-wing Jews, a state that has become not only right-wing but militaristic and authoritarian, the idea that Jews who consider themselves to be the heirs of the Shoah … to bomb what I consider a concentration camp, seemed to me scandalous.”
The movie originated out of a conversation over a decade ago between Ophuls and French director Jean-Luc Godard. They discussed collaborating on the film, Ophuls said, but Godard lost interest. The film actually begins with a scene in which Ophuls fails to convince Godard to go with him to Tel Aviv, to collaborate on the film.
Ophuls began his career as a feature film director, achieving some success with his 1963 comedy debut “Banana Peel,” a detective film starring Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Paul Belmondo. A follow-up two years later, “Fire at Will,” was a box office flop. He turned to documentaries, focusing first on the Munich crisis of 1938 (“Munich”) and then on France under Nazi occupation with “The Sorrow and the Pity.”
The two-part 1969 documentary, 4 1/2 hours long, examined the Vichy government through archival footage and interviews with former German officers, French collaborators, resistance fighters and residents of the small French city of Clermont-Ferrand.
In one scene, a local merchant named Marius is interviewed about a small advertisement he placed in a newspaper, in which he declared himself “100% pure French.” The ad appeared in 1940, after the Vichy government voluntarily adopted laws that excluded Jews from certain jobs and stripped them of basic rights. When Ophuls asked him why, Marius explained that he was Catholic, but his surname, Klein, led some people to accuse him of being Jewish. Even as Marius insists he’s not racist, by publicly denying his perceived Jewishness he is revealed to be complicit in the anti-Semitism of the time.
“The Sorrow and the Pity” was originally banned in France, and it took a dozen years for French TV to broadcast the film. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1971 for best documentary.
The film is also referenced in Woody Allen’s 1977 classic “Annie Hall,” in which Allen’s Alvy Singer asks Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall to go see “The Sorrow and the Pity” at the theater. She tells him, “I‘m not in the mood to see a four-hour documentary on Nazis.” Later, after they break up, Singer describes a feeling of triumph after learning that she took her new boyfriend to see the movie.
Ophuls’ films show the capacity for heroism as well as barbarity. One of the characters in “The Memory of Justice” is a nurse charged with committing horrifying crimes, such as injecting gasoline into Jewish concentration camp inmates.
“That was the whole point, in my opinion, of the Nuremberg trials, was to condemn people” for inflicting suffering that went beyond Nazi commands,” Ophuls said.
“They thought they were legitimized because they could do anything in that situation,” said Andreas-Benjamin Seyfert, Ophuls’ grandson and co-organizer of the film festival. “He’s trying to show the whole spectrum of what humans can be, rather than just saying evil can be banal, as Hannah Arendt was showing. [Arendt, a Jewish political theorist, reported on the Adolf Eichmann trial and wrote a book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” in which she argued that ordinary people’s evil acts often result from conformance to mass opinion, without reflection upon the consequences of their actions.] He shows it can be very special to be evil. … Klaus Barbie was no Eichmann, he was a torturer … and that takes a certain kind of mind as well.”
Another person in “The Memory of Justice” is Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect and later the Third Reich’s minister of armaments. Speer accepted moral responsibility at Nuremberg and served 20 years in prison. When Ophuls interviews him in the film, Speer comes off as sophisticated and likable.
“For me, [Speer] is the embodiment of evil, because he comes through as a good and gentle person,” said Paul Dominik Kurek, who runs a film screening series at UCLA and organized the Ophuls festival with Seyfert.
With the apparent recent rise in anti-Semitism coinciding with the gradual loss of Holocaust survivors, are people forgetting the lessons of the Holocaust? Perhaps, Ophuls said, but “I think that forgetting about the Shoah once in a while is not such a bad thing.”
“It is not a terribly good thing for the psyche to identify — especially if you have feelings that you’re unique — to identify all your life with the victims of a genocide. I think it’s important to remember that there have been other genocides — the Armenians and in Rwanda.
“We Jews may be unique in some ways. I think we are, actually. I’m rather proud of being Jewish. … I don’t believe in the chosen people, but I think we’re remarkable.”
Ophuls’ probing curiosity challenges a reductionist attitude toward history. He shows that war can be complicated, and that people don’t always act bravely. That perspective is summarized in “The Sorrow and the Pity,” when former British Prime Minister Anthony Eden tells Ophuls, “One who has not suffered the horrors of an occupying power has no right to judge a nation that has.”
By not resorting to abstractions or offering easy answers, he shows that the truth is more complicated than we would like to think.
“We all have a different approach to the truth,” Ophuls said, “and if there’s one thing I really don’t like, in documentaries in particular … I don’t like truth merchants. I don’t like people that think they have a monopoly on the truth and their job is to tell other people what the truth is.”
“Shadows of the 20th Century: Ophuls Film Festival” will take place June 1-8 at various locations on the UCLA campus and around Los Angeles. The keynote on June 5 at 4 p.m. in the Luskin Conference Center will feature Marcel Ophuls in conversation with Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. For more information, go to cjs.ucla.edu.