It’s difficult to tell whom Kevin Macdonald is angriest at in his new doc, “My Enemy’s Enemy” — Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, or the U.S. government, which pic argues was responsible for protecting Barbie for more than three decades following WWII. The argument may be awfully loaded — and will be read in some circles as simplistic Yank-bashing — but Macdonald summons a vast range of witnesses and experts to describe the darkest days of the Cold War. Pic deserves much more than tube play, but will draw more auds at fests (especially in Latin America and Europe) than in theaters.
Unlike Macdonald’s mountain-climbing docu “Touching the Void,” his French-produced “My Enemy’s Enemy” is much less naturally cinematic, relying as it does on journalistic detail and an army of talking heads. For students of the Cold War or readers of such trenchant books as John Loftus’ “The Secret War Against the Jews,” there’s little new to be gleaned from the pic, while those who’ve already seen “Terror’s Advocate” — Barbet Schroeder’s doc profiling Barbie’s lawyer, Jacques Verges — will view Barbie anew as some sort of evil ally with ’60s and post-’60s global terrorists.
For most, however, pic offers an object lesson in the difficulties the civilized world often faces in bringing its human monsters to justice and the difficulties nations sometimes encounter when two policy aims (in this case, capturing Nazi murderers while battling communism) come into bold contradiction.
Like an academic thesis, pic declares at the outset (via Andre Dussolier’s narration) that it will show how Western powers gave Barbie havens in Europe and South America, where he plotted to create a “Fourth Reich in the Andes.” Early passages describe a benign German boy whose penchant for extreme violence and torture was unleashed under Nazi training. As in docu “Hotel Terminus,” which examines Barbie’s atrocities in France and Lyon (earning him the moniker “Butcher of Lyon”), the inner man and his original impulses remain something of a mystery.
Macdonald effectively juxtaposes heart-rending testimonies — such as the moving tale of Barbie’s fatal torture of legendary French resistance leader Jean Moulin — with the chilling denials of Barbie’s daughter, Ute Messner, who comes off as the definitive child of the banality of evil.
As with other Nazis who managed to slip through Allied hands at the end of WWII, Barbie found he could bargain with Western nations by providing potentially valuable intelligence on East German and other European communists, whom the West — rightly or wrongly — deemed the new, post-Hitler enemy. Such a bargaining chip made him useful (confirmed here by several retired CIA men), though Macdonald tellingly leaves unexamined the uses of such Nazis by Western European spy agencies.
In a fascinating turn, Barbie is part of a wave of Nazi officers dubbed “the Rat Line” (and protected by allies within the Vatican such as Krujoslav Dragonovic), sent in protective exile to South America. The extent to which Barbie re-established a new, vigorous life for himself and his German circle in La Paz makes “My Enemy’s Enemy” a strong contribution to film docs on the terrible legacy of South American military rule and its support by the U.S. as a means to defeat home-grown Marxism.
Such historians as Robert Paxton, Neal Ascherson, Loftus, Patricia McSherry and Christopher Simpson, as well as journalists Kai Hermann, Peter McFarren, Carlos Soria and Mirna Murillo and a whole gaggle of vet spies fill in the exceptionally complex story for Macdonald’s camera. Fine contributions from editor Nicolas Chaudeurge and composer Alex Heffes energize what could have been a case of info overload.