The Trial of Klaus Barbie

The trial of the former Gestapo officer SS-Hauptsturmführer Nikolaus (Klaus) Barbie, known as the ‘Butcher of Lyon’ was held in May 1987 near the scene of his atrocities.

Independent producer Dennis Woolf had already produced stylized re-enactments of controversial trials for Channel Four.  He and co-producer Claudia Milne now persuaded the BBC to commission a full-scale dramatic reproduction.

A team of stenographers was employed to record the court proceedings and the transcripts were dispatched to London, where the creative team compared notes every morning before Ray Jenkins thrashed out a raw script.  French-speaking director Gareth Jones was sent to Lyon to watch the conduct of the trial and came back with detailed notes on the appearance and performance of all the main players.

The result was to be neither drama-documentary nor docu-drama but an entirely new genre: an abridged reproduction of the trial in a massive replica courtroom erected in BBC Studio One, cast with look-alikes, scripted solely with words that had been spoken. Courtroom drama as it had never been made before.

Jones began casting and rehearsing while the trial was still in progress. Notable leads were played by David Calder, Colin Welland, John Stride, Mark Kingston and the brilliant Maurice Denham as a chilling Klaus Barbie, but it was the many and mostly female witness roles that gave the film its emotional power. The case had aroused intense interest and the ‘great British repertory company’ gave its all. Many of the fine talents appearing here, for just a few minutes each, are by now forgotten.

The likely duration of the trial had dictated the production slot but defence lawyer Jacques Vergès (David Calder) disrupted proceedings with a last-minute counter-attack, comparing France’s colonial record in Africa with Nazi atrocities.  Jones was casting the unexpected new witnesses as they took the stand in Lyon.

The piece was shot in two days through 360º with five cameras, two of them necessarily in vision as ‘courtroom cameras’.   The verdict arrived at the end of Day Two.  The script and camera script were completed overnight.

An editor had been sifting through the material already assembled in the control room.  With one day’s edit and a rudimentary sound mix, the piece was broadcast on BBC 1 the following evening, three days after the trial’s conclusion.

A new audiovisual festival was being launched in France that summer.  Led by Pierre-Henri Deleau and Michel Mitrani, FIPA (le festival international de programmes audiovisuels) wanted The Trial of Klaus Barbie almost as a cause célèbre to support their aims.  Why had the French networks not dared to make this tour de force?

The screening at the Palais des Festival in Cannes was Jones’s début on a continental stage and would soon change his career.

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