The veteran documentarian talks dwindling attention spans, understanding the Nazi era, America’s “worst president” – and his love of elephants.
The documentary maker Marcel Ophüls was the son of the great German director Max Ophüls and was forced to move with his Jewish family several times to escape the Nazis. He later addressed various aspects of that era with epic documentaries such as The Sorrow and the Pity, which explored how the Vichy government collaborated with Nazi Germany. Marcel Ophüls, who turns 90 this week, has just received a lifetime achievement award at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival. Ahead of the ceremony, I asked him whether Jihlava’s relatively young audiences may have struggled to relate to films focused on WWII.
“Yes. They have to deal with it in their own way. If they bother to come. First they have to bother to come and then, even if the films are long, they have to have the patience to stay, instead of walking out.
“Because that’s what show-business is all about.”
It’s said that today people have a shorter attention span. Given that your films are so long, do you notice that?
“Yes. Who doesn’t [laughs]?
“Of course we notice that. But I just have to try to cope with the present situation.
“The short attention span is based on the fact that people are solicited a great deal.
“First people have to bother to come and then they have to have the patience to stay, instead of walking out.”
“Every person has to assimilate so much information. Facebook and Twitter and all these rather terrible inventions of the 21st century dissipate the ability to pay attention.
“And that I think is not a very good thing. But I can’t do anything about it, can I?”
You had a very difficult early life. Your family were on the run from the Nazis, you had to move a lot. Did all that movement impact your point of view as a director?
“Yes. Of course, being exiled twice, having to deal with new people, new countries, forced me to pay attention, adapt myself and become, I suppose you could call it, a cosmopolitan Jew.
“And being a cosmopolitan Jew has influenced my filmmaking.”
One of the films you’re showing here is your first documentary Munich, Or Peace in Our Times. It’s almost 80 years since Munich. Do you feel that the depth of that betrayal is now fully understood even, for example in France or the UK?
“But the attempt to explain what happened was just part of my job.
“The Sudetenkrize and the Fuhrer’s madness, his monstrous madness, can never be fully understood.
“What is harder to understand, and perhaps more important to try to understand is why the Germans kept supporting Hitler.
“The Germans knew about Auschwitz. Of course they did!
“It’s silly to think that they didn’t. They told each other. They must have approved.
“Why did the Germans accept all this with enthusiasm?
“Well, some of the reasons are understandable. For instance, Hitler got rid of the Depression.
“He constructed the first autobahns [laughs]. These are important things.
“He got rid of – that’s in one of my films, The Memory of Justice – he got rid of crime in the streets.
“So these were understandable reasons. But it doesn’t solve the basic mystery.”
You’ve made a lot of films over many years. Did your filmmaking experience confirm your previously held view of human nature? Or did you learn something about human nature from making your films?
“I hope so. I think that’s one of the few advantages of being specialised in documentaries is that you should learn things while making them, and then perhaps change your opinions as you go along.
“Trump may draw us into another world war. But not like Hitler, not a planned world war.”
“As a young man, I was an optimist. As the old man I am now, I’ve become very pessimistic about human nature.
“I actually prefer animals.
“When at the end of the year I write cheques for charity, I send them for the protection of animals.
“Elephants, for instance. I think elephants are a hell of a lot smarter than we are. I love elephants. Don’t you?”
I haven’t come across any lately.
“You haven’t met one? All right [laughs].”
During the rise of Donald Trump last year, comparisons were made between him and Hitler. Do those comparisons have any validity, do you think?
“No. No, I don’t.
“I think Trump is already proving himself to be the worst of all American presidents since America became a democracy.
“There seems to me very little doubt about that.
“I think Trump is crazy.
“I think Trump is also a racist. Probably also an anti-Semite, but mildly so.
“He may draw us into another world war. But not like Hitler, not a planned world war.
“He’s too stupid for that. Too crazy, and too stupid.
“If war comes with North Korea or with Iran, and it is bound to be nuclear, it is just because the guy is too full of himself.”
About documentary making in general, do you feel it has changed since your days starting out? Or is it essentially the same art that it was in those days?
“I’m not sure it’s an art. I’m not sure that movies are.
“My father, who was a genius, wasn’t sure that movies were an art form. He called it a ‘recreative art’.
“The golden age of filmmaking is over. Again we get back to Twitter and Facebook and video games… F**k video games!
“So yes, documentary filmmaking has changed, because it’s now done by young people who have less of an attention span than Fred Wiseman and I had.”
“I prefer actors to real people.”
You started out making feature films. I’m curious how you view when feature films recreate historical events or individuals compared to when this is done by documentaries? How do you see those kinds of feature films?
“Historical ones? Well, we spoke about elephants a moment ago...
“I prefer now actors, because I’m from a show business family: Max Ophüls never wanted to become a director, originally, he just wanted to be an actor.
“I prefer actors to real people.
“There are great historical movies that are not documentaries. Any number of them.
“For instance, Les Miserables. It’s been filmed at least four or five times. It’s history – Victor Hugo wrote history!
“My father made a few historical film: De Mayerling a Sarajevo, From Mayerling to Sarajevo, is a very good movie.
“It’s not a masterpiece. It’s not one of his five masterpieces but a very good film.”
You said you preferred actors to real people – is that because they’re malleable?
“Just because they’re malleable? Well, you gave the answer to your question.”
You’re known for getting people to open up in your films and maybe tell you things they haven’t told anybody before. What was your technique for getting people to speak to you in an open way?
“It depends on the people. You have to change whatever tactic or strategy you have in concordance with the people that you get in front of the camera.
“Mostly you try to be as charming as you can possibly be.
“But sometimes it needs a little bullying. And sometimes also a little hypocrisy.”