Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, who won the Oscar for his 1999 documentary One Day in September and also directed The Last King of Scotland and is helming the upcoming Brad Pitt, Edward Norton film State of Play, has unveiled a new documentary here in Toronto, My Enemy's Enemy. The film concerns the post-war activities of Klaus Barbie, the infamous Nazi who was tagged as The Butcher of Lyon due to his penchant for going to any lengths to root out resistance fighters in occupied France during the war. Barbie's most notable crimes, documented during his trial in in the 1980s, included the arrest of 44 Jewish children in an orphanage in 1944, and their subsequent deportation to Auschwitz. When asked at his trial on July 3, 1987, if he had anything to anything to say in his defense, Barbie simply replied "I fought the Resistance, that I respect, harshly, but it was war and the war is over. Thank you." The Butcher was promptly convicted on seventeen counts of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison.

It's not Barbie's wartime crimes that Macdonald is chiefly interested in, however. This is not a documentary that seeks to unveil the hideousness of Nazism -- at this point, that subject has pretty much been exhausted -- it instead focuses on Barbie's post-war shenanigans, which were wide-ranging and spanned another forty years or so until his eventual arrest and trial in his twilight years. Proving to be a useful Nazi to the intelligence services in the immediate post-war period, he was actually protected and assisted when he attempted to relocate to South America through something called the "ratline," which funneled cooperative and useful Nazis to safe havens where they could be mined for information. A simple deal with the government was struck: Barbie would serve as a special agent against communist infiltrators in South America in exchange for protection against prosecution. Among the many services he provided along those lines, MacDonald learns, was eventually contributing to the capture of Che Guevara. Barbie's fight against Russian communists during the war simply morphed into a similar fight after the war, Macdonald argues.

On the personal side, Macdonald gives us as much archival footage as presumably exists of Barbie himself. At one point, we see him admitting putting a famous resistance figure into an "SS hot water bath." Barbie's family members including his daughter are also seen in archival footage, being quizzed about his reputation. One journalist asks Ute Messner, the daughter, how she feels being the daughter of a man who is commonly referred to as The Butcher of Lyon, to which she replies: "We never came to know why he was called 'Butcher.' The journalist retorts "Well, because they say he was a great torturer." "Yes, but who invented that? I tried to discover it," Messner asks. "His victims, presumably," is the journalist's response. The exchange closes with Messner noting that butchers may be upset by that association, since butchering is an honest profession. This little slice of absurdism is also matched by a detail Macdonald uncovers about Barbie's secret identity in the post-war period -- he apparently decided to take the name of a Jewish man he had known as his first alias in a new homeland.

Macdonald himself has described this post-war period as a murky, somewhat undefined time in history, and those qualities spill over into this film. The focus is clear -- Macdonald wants to shine light on our government's culpability in this matter -- but the reality is so complex and distorted by over fifty years of time passed that watching the film sometimes feels more like homework than naturally good drama. There's not a great deal of fresh or innovative filmmaking techniques on display here, and the picture sometimes comes across like a film that could just have easily been made in the 80s as today. The director has clearly done his homework, but not a lot of new thought or arresting ideas are at play here. Still, as a gateway into the history of this man and the astounding fact that his career as a Nazi was only partially sidelined after the war, My Enemy's Enemy is compelling viewing. It's a film that could easily find its way into schools, where it might prompt a lot of useful debate about a cloudy period in recent history.