French Holocaust documentary ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ is still chillingly relevant
Re-released in the US on Feb. 24, Marcel Ophuls’ 4-hour 1969 film presents a riveting depiction of everyday life in Nazi-occupied France and is ultimately about human nature
NEW YORK — “It’s terrible. But it has to be said — it’s the truth.”
One of the dozens of firsthand witnesses of the Holocaust speaks this blunt line in the 251-minute documentary “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a mammoth piece of history from director Marcel Ophuls. The film (ranked 11th on Sight and Sound’s best documentary poll in 2019) has recently been restored, and opens at New York’s Film Forum on February 24.
In 1969, the German-born Jewish director raised in France and the United States (and still with us today at age 95!) shot over 50 hours of interview footage with notable individuals and everyday folk, all of whom were touched by the Nazi occupation of France. His goal was to paint a picture of what life was really like, and he used as his primary focus the typical town of Clermond-Ferrand, a lovely spot not far from the seat of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s power in Vichy.
When French television, run entirely by the state at that time, received the finished product (which they commissioned) they famously shelved it. They were expecting, it is believed, something that continued the national mythos — that France was a nation of resisters who strategized and struggled against the Nazis. Some of that was in the film, as some of it was indeed true. But more shocking was how the documentary dealt squarely with the collaborationists, ranging from the many who cheered as the tanks rolled in, to others who merely shrugged their shoulders and went with the flow — so long as no one mistook them for a Communist, Anglophile, or Jew.
Though the film never actually played on its intended platform until 1981, it still became an international sensation. Even French president Charles De Gaulle commented, remarking on the work’s “unpleasant truths,” saying that, “France does not need truths; France needs hope.” Even without a mainstream domestic release, it is credited by many with altering the national dialogue — a kind of cinematic truth and reconciliation program.
After its New York re-release, the film will then hit select cities throughout the spring and summer, with Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland, Hudson, and Concord confirmed. For many cinephiles, it is possibly one of those important works you’ve always heard about but never got around to seeing. This might be the time.
From ‘Banana Peel’ to unpeeling reality
Marcel Ophuls is the son of Max Ophüls, a key figure in cinema history whose work includes “The Earrings of Madame De …,” and “Lola Montès.” Marcel got into the family biz eventually scoring a hit with the frothy 1964 romantic film “Banana Peel.” He found his true calling, though, making documentaries for television.
“The Sorrow and the Pity” was enough of a sensation that submitting oneself to the full four-hour experience became something of a punchline. In Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning comedy “Annie Hall,” attending a screening is a recurring bit, and led to lines like “those men in the French resistance were really brave … they had to listen to Maurice Chevalier sing so much.” (Indeed, the “Gigi” star makes a few appearances via archival footage in “The Sorrow and the Pity.”)
In addition to the project’s social importance, film scholars regularly cite “The Sorrow and the Pity” as a key step in the development of the documentary form. When Ophuls began, lightweight cameras and portable synch-sound equipment had only existed for a few years. Like artists and activists today deploying their mobile phones to advance filmmaking, the first wave of “cinema vérité” was free to roam and immerse itself with its subjects. (Titles like “Chronicle of a Summer,” “Titicut Follies” and “Primary” are classic examples of this.) But “The Sorrow and the Pity” represents a significant next step — the production is nimble but it isn’t “on the move.” It settles in for lengthy interviews with its subjects, but in their own homes or in locations relevant to the topic at hand.
This is such second nature visual language today that it’s hard to conceive of it as being something revolutionary. But it is key to understanding why the film had such an impact. Here were people of every social stratum that had survived under occupation, digging into the most mundane recollections of those years. (Indeed, one man joined the resistance because he was sick of going to the butcher shop to learn the Germans, who had first access, were “eating all our French beef!”)
And this, for me, is where the movie really connects. Aside from all the lofty pronouncements (“a work of history that changed the course of history” writes The New Yorker), nothing is going to hold your attention for over four hours if it isn’t interesting. It’s the specificity of the people and places, on even a basic visual level, that does it.
A wash of voices
Ophuls interviews dozens of people, and if I were more of a scholar of French politics I’d probably have more to say about some of the names, like the Jewish government official Pierre Mendès France who was arrested by the Vichy regime and dramatically escaped prison, then left for England (only to later return and become prime minister.) The film eventually becomes a wash of voices and observations — some on the right side of history, others not.
You’ll hear from an unrepentant German officer who has the audacity to complain that some resistance fighters didn’t wear uniforms. (You’d go to shake down some farmers and they’d turn around and shoot you, he complains.) You’ll hear from a working-class resistance fighter who survived torture at a concentration camp. He knows which of his neighbors informed on him, but he won’t name him. Not that he’ll forget or even forgive, but to seek vengeance, he knows, won’t solve anything.
Other stories include a shopkeeper named Klein who took an ad out in the paper to make sure his regulars knew he wasn’t Jewish. (When asked about this, it never crosses his mind that this was anything out of the ordinary; the community had a right to know.) There’s an upper-class resistance fighter who didn’t much care for the Communists in his cohort, but held his nose, and then there are the many who use their respect for World War I hero Philippe Pétain as an excuse for sticking with the Vichy government.
One of these “mild collaborationists” insists that French Jews who were deported to the camps fared much better than Jews from other countries. It’s one of the few examples where Ophuls speaks back to his subjects, and the two get into a volley of numbers and prevarications. It’s a harrowing example of how two people can look at the same facts and reach different conclusions.
Most fascinating, I found, was the case of Christian de la Mazière, a charming and seemingly self-aware man who joined the Charlemagne Division, a French platoon of the SS. He discusses his youthful attraction to Fascism like a recovering alcoholic talking about booze at an AA meeting. He never once asks for forgiveness, and you can’t tell if it is because he is ashamed or just assumes he already has it. People like this weren’t talked about in polite French society at the time, but it becomes increasingly clear that there were stories like this everywhere. Surely this was the source of much of the film’s controversy.
Along with de la Mazière’s testimony is a tremendous amount of propaganda footage from the Vichy reign. It’s fascinating to see how the films and songs (including one from the aforementioned Maurice Chevalier) spun collaboration (or, at least, the lack of resistance) as more than a face-saving move, but as a source of pride. Yes, we were defeated, but this new government, led by a patriot and war hero, will pick us back up and weave us in with modern Europe, away from the aggressive British and, of course, the untrustworthy Jews. It seems, with hindsight, so clearly bogus, but the facts are undeniable: for a great many people it did the trick.
As a Jew, naturally, I have a special interest in learning all I can about Nazism. But this movie succeeds because it is ultimately about human nature. And depending on how alarmist one is about current times, it is possible to find parallels to our current political moment in almost every minute of the over four-hour running time.
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