screened March 2007 on Image DVD in Weehawken NJ and Ottawa Canada
TSPDT rank #709 IMDb

“In its complexity, its humanity, its refusal to find easy solutions, this is one of the greatest documentaries ever made.” – from Roger Ebert’s review upon the film’s initial 1972 release in the US

“I’m not in the mood to see a four and a half hour documentary on Nazis.” – Diane Keaton, Annie Hall (TSPDT #129)

I confess to sharing some of Annie Hall’s misgivings upon my initial viewing of The Sorrow and the Pity. Though not properly a documentary of the Holocaust, I had it categorized in my head as part of that subgenre, and as such I compared it to the likes of Alain Resnais’ breakthrough Night and Fog (TSPDT #381) and Claude Lanzmann’s epic Shoah (TSPDT #117). Upon initial viewing, Ophuls’ opus compared unfavorably in both cases On the one hand, I missed Resnais’ deft montage of archival Holocaust footage cumulating in the blistering question directed to all humanity: “Who is responsible?” On the other hand, there is Lanzmann’s steady, unwavering interrogation of both people and places with his long tracking shots of Holocaust sites and relentless, in-depth interviews with witnesses, making us conscious of the past that exists within the present. At first glance The Sorrow and the Pity seems artistically mild compared to these two feats — a series of talking heads intercut with archival footage — this is pretty much the aesthetic convention of historical documentary today. Is the significance of Ophuls’ film simply that it was the first of its kind?

Ophuls made the film, a “chronicle of a French city under the Occupation,” in the wake of May 1968. The conservative, established powers of French state and society, under the leadership of de Gaulle’s party, had just reasserted themselves, basing their moral authority, as always, on the myth of Gaullist heroism during the Occupation. The response of Ophuls and his fellow filmmakers was to secure financing from Swiss and German television–French television declined to back the project–and explode the myth, by taking a thorough look at resistance and collaboration during World War II.

The Sorrow and the Pity was therefore a portrait of present-day France, as much as it was an investigation of historic events. This aspect of the film, its contemporaneity, has now been lost to us. We cannot respond as did people in 1971, when the word dropped that then-President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had been a self-deluded acolyte of Marshal Pétain. Nor can we experience the exultation or outrage of audiences back then, when they heard Denis Rake–a former British agent in occupied France–explain almost unwillingly that workers and Communists had given tremendous support to the Resistance, but that the bourgeoisie had been, well, apathetic.

That much is lost. What remains is a grand, astonishingly comprehensive document, recorded with unfailing persistence and intelligence. Ophuls detailed the full range of French responses to Nazism, as experienced primarily by people in the town of Clermont-Ferrand. That was the first, and most invaluable, level of his achievement. Nobody else managed to get all these characters on camera.

-Stuart Klawans in The Nation

Indeed, the unprecedented number of interview subjects for this documentary (nearly three dozen by my count) is astonishing, dare I say overwhelming. Part of the difficulty of my initial viewing no doubt had to be the overwhelming task of keeping track of who’s who. With so many interview subjects, one is bound to gravitate more towards one than another. Ophuls spends an discernibly inordinate amount of time with key figures in the Resistance: there’s Pierre Mendes-France, a former Resistance leader who later became Primer Minister of France; and at the grassroots level, there’s Alexis and Louis Grave, two farmers turned Resistance fighters. But I think he spends more time than anyone on Marcel Verdier, a French pharmacist who mostly minded his own business throughout the Occupation:

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The main overall achievement of Marcel Ophüls’ ambitious documentary is to give us primary source material from people who directly experienced the Occupation and make us wonder what we would do ourselves in such a situation. As Annie Hall wonders, “sometimes I ask myself how I’d stand up under torture.” French history revisionists would like us to believe that the French people as a whole were very heroic and resisted the Germans en masse. Nothing could be further from the truth. Turns out that they act like . . . people.”

- Toxic Universe review

It’s striking how bored Verdier’s children look as they politely sit in this room and smoke or hang their heads as their father talks of a time of suffering only a generation ago but could be the Dark Ages for all they cared. I especially love the look of the bratty boy’s face — this guy looks like he can’t wait for this interview to be over so he can pop into his Maserati for a weekend on the Riviera. If anything, his insolent look made me conscious of my own initial indifference. The paradox being that you have to establish a certain level of attentiveness to have the film tap into your conscience like this. And who’s responsible for stimulating that awareness – the viewer or the film? Maybe Ophuls’ approach worked for audiences whose expectation of then-revelatory testimonies was enough. Today, in some ways it feels like evidence of the derogatory connotations of the word “documentary” – that it’s more of a document than a film.

And yet, upon closer inspection, there is artistry to be found in Ophuls filmmaking. I’ve seen the film two more times in the past week, moving forward and back on my DVD to reconnect interview footage from a given individual scattered across four plus hours, and getting a firmer sense of Ophuls’ arrangement of footage to form a coherent narrative. The film lends itself well to DVD viewing, as its puzzle-like qualities emerge and can be exploited by the active viewer.

Ophuls makes one subtle connection at the very beginning, as Verdier and his family are one of two groups of people whom Ophuls introduces before the title sequence. The other is Helmuth Tausend, a German officer stationed in Clermont Ferrand for much of the war. Amazingly Ophuls gets footage of Tausend at his daughter’s wedding in Germany, and even interviews him at the banquet table. This guy must really be proud of his time served for the Nazis to impose it on daughter’s wedding reception.

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Why does Ophuls juxtapose these two families – German and French, to start off his movie? We see that they are both comfortably middle class, grounded by solid, self-possessed patriarchs. There’s a weird sense that, despite one being the occupier and the other the occupied, the two sides have more in common than one might initially assume, and their shared aura of bourgeois complacency seems at odds with the historical outrages the film regales.

Thirty years down the road, Ophuls’ methodology is as interesting as the history he tells. Merely claiming that Ophuls had an argument seems to work against the surface of his film, for he disguises his point of view, his argument, behind the reminiscing of his interview subjects. The film is a classic of humanist culture in large part because Ophuls, in giving the people the chance to say their piece, apparently puts his faith in those people (and in the audience that watches them) to impart “truth.”

Steven Rubio for Bad Subjects

It seems contradictory that Ophuls is allowing people to “say their piece” while disguising his point of view within their statements, but Rubio’s description is apt for how the film works. There are obvious choices he makes in the way he films and interviews his subjects. Take for example his preferred manner of shooting Helmuth Tausend — few subjects in the film get this much of a close-up. Ironically, we are physically closer to the “enemy” in this film than to anyone else. Is this a way to offset the expected audience antipathy towards a German subject, either because we are predisposed to dislike him or because we identify least with his point of view? Or does the extreme close-up of his pudgy, cigar-chomping mug actually make him seem more sinister? Likewise, whose idea was it to interview Verdier among his children? And why does Ophuls’ camera seem to pan towards one of his kids every time they yawn or nod off?

It’s worth trying to distinguish between the various factors that contribute to the final outcome: how things were set up and why, what happened, and how the filmmaker reacted in his filming. The Sorrow and the Pity is interesting in that one can see Ophuls’ proclivities and sympathies emerge here and there. When ex-British secret agent Dennis Rake is interviewed, he reveals how serving his country was a way to overcome his insecurities as a homosexual of not being as brave as other men, and Ophuls perversely comes to his defense by chiding him: “But you were buying into the prejudices of the time!” We see Ophuls absorbed as Rake details his dilemma of how he had to extricate himself from a German officer he fell in love with while spying on him.

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One tries to measure in what ways Ophuls’ presence enhances as well as detracts from the central matter of fact finding. It’s plain that the empathy Ophuls displays towards Rake is what helps elicit Rake’s intimate revelation. There’s such an abundance of material that the democratic effect of many voices allowed to speak their mind is maintained. It’s open to argument to what extent Ophuls’ technique amounts to subterfuge, subtly nudging the viewer towards his own judgments of the people on screen. It’s never as overbearing as, say, a Michael Moore. If anything, you have to wonder whether a film that lets its aura of objectivity slip once in a while does more to stimulate the active viewer than a film that aspires to total objectivity all the time.

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It is clear that totalitarian cinema requires a passively receptive audience whereas a democratic experience of art requires individual responses from active viewers. The French film The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) demonstrates this contrast. It juxtaposes post-war interviews with wartime footage and explores the extent to which the French middle classes cooperated with the German occupiers, raising questions untouched by propaganda…. Not only does this dig beneath the surface of recognised history, it also questions our core assumptions about the medium: film’s ability to present itself as recorded truth.

James Plumtree, The Owl Journal

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Alongside Ophuls’ interviews, his use of archival documentary footage, mostly taken from German and Vichy propaganda films, makes up the other half of the movie. I think the use of a propaganda clip like the one above is more than just presenting a sense of what things were like back then, but also questioning the truthfulness of documentary footage. This is an idea conveyed in the opening reel of Citizen Kane (TSPDT #1), but in The Sorrow and the Pity the appropriation of this documentary footage acquires a different relevance because it further brings to attention what’s at stake in Ophuls’ project. Is he correcting the falsehoods of the past? Or is it more of an acknowledgment that truth is something that’s always in process, both through the vertical axis of time and the horizontal axis of different people in different spaces?
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One of the most intriguing moments of the film involves an interview with Christian de la Maziere, who during the Occupation joined the German SS and volunteered to fight on the Eastern Front against Russia. Maziere is a remarkably charismatic presence, who seems to talk openly despite his sordid past. Ophuls chooses to stage the interview as an ambulatory conversation through the halls of the former Vichy headquarters, while a guided tour passes through, dutifully impressed by their surroundings. Note the bizarre interlude of Nazi music that creeps in as they walk through a particularly opulent room.[youtube]QhA2gA2hcrs[/youtube]

In this one sequence Ophuls makes some striking connections between Maziere’s childhood desire for idealism and spectacle and the tour group’s enjoyment of the castle — that we are all susceptible to the appearances of opulence and power, and that our desire to participate in it can make us complicit in the uses and abuses of that power. The remedy prescribed by Ophuls’ filmmaking is to become aware of those appearances, to disrupt our unthinking acceptance of them (hence the music in the middle of the hallway), to ask questions, as he does throughout these four hours.

And he is just as liable to questioning as anyone. From Gerald Peary’s interview with Ophuls:

Q- Why are women in such a subordinate position in The Sorrow and The Pity?

A- This question is asked at every bull session. There must be some justification for it.

Women resistance leaders in France are treated today as Joan of Arc-figures at official ceremonies. They transport the flowers and the flag to the sounds of trumpet calls. Maybe it is because of this sexist representation that I intuitively stayed clear of their particular fate…. Maybe I’m just rationalizing.

Q- But what about Madame Grave, who is there during your long conversation at the home of the Grave brothers, ex-Resistance fighters? Mostly, she comes in and pours wine for the men.

A- Now I spent several days there and know that Madame Grave is a very important figure in the household. During the time of the Resistance she was also a very important figure. Yet the whole evening of the filming she stayed geographically between the kitchen and the living room. We didn’t set it up that way. It just happened…

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Ophuls (cont’d): One of the producers, a political journalist, Andre Arice, became very uncomfortable because he believes in sexual equality, that every part of the family should contribute to the conversation. So he said, “Madame, why don’t you join us? Come sit at the table, participate…”

Here’s what a documentary maker should not do. The men started shifting their feet. She didn’t want to sit down because her daughter-in-law would be left out. Now all of us were uncomfortable. Finally, out of courtesy, Madame sat. We shot two or three reels and I found in the editing room that I couldn’t use a single sentence.

Arice, who should have known better, had blown it. My basic belief about documentary film direction is that you must not upset the scene you are filming, and especially not by projecting your own ideas.

Ophuls does include one extensive interview with a woman, a Madame Solange who was wrongfully accused of denouncing a Resistance captain based on a forged letter. Her account of the injustice she suffered, placed purposefully towards the end of the film, is a sobering testimony to the paranoia and damage inflicted by the Occupation on French society, leaving no one unscathed. However, at the very end she maintains her affection for Marshal Petain and the Vichy regime.

Maurice Chevalier is featured prominently in the documentary. He’s the grinning boulevardier singer, who with most entertainers in Paris, weathered the occupation living a high life with the German occupiers, while the non – V.I.P. population lost an average of 25 pounds each due to malnutrition. Some of his songs provide infrequent background for archival footage. The picture ends with a newsreel of him, grinning like a baby, claiming he was not a collaborator. The charges against him that he was one were false, you see, because he never went to Germany to perform singing engagements for the Nazis, not once! He did go to sing for French P.O.W.’s in their camps, and that was it! Honest, you can believe Maurice! He’s just a singing, non-political carefee guy! After all the sincere testimony from citizens, important and humble, Chevalier’s image-mending comes off as particularly heinous.

Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant on DVD Talk

As ridiculous as the footage of Chevalier is at the very end, I don’t think the film achieves the same level of thematic or aesthetic resonance if the coda is seen as playing one fool’s staged apologia against all of the supposedly more “sincere” interviews that precede it. The juxtapositions of past and present, and of different types of filmmaking, don’t so much leave us wanting to point fingers at who’s to blame but to bring us to a more troubling – and hopefully more humanistic – view of man’s relationship to memory, to self-presentation, to each other.

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A well-written synopsis and extensive bibliography of The Sorrow and the Pity

Critique from The World Socialist Website offers further historical context

Films de France

One blogger after screening The Sorrow and the Pity sees parallels between the German occupation of France and the present US occupation of Iraq.

Steven Rubio of Bad Subjects compares Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore and The Fog of War by Errol Morris unfavorably to The Sorrow and the Pity:

Ultimately, an artist like Ophuls seems to trust humanity, even in the face of catastrophe. He treats people decently, he respects the intelligence of his audience, and while he is as interested in aesthetics as his counterparts, he is more interested in truth. Artists like Moore and Morris, performing a crucial task, succeed on many important levels, but the trust that Ophuls exhibits is not always clear in their work, which leaves them open to criticism that deflects attention away from those crucial tasks.

A reviewer at MIT compares Ophuls’ Oscar-winning follow-up Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (TSPDT #444) unfavorably to The Sorrow and the Pity