The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) – Review by David Denby

One of the greatest films ever made, "The Sorrow and The Pity" is a contribution to history, to social psychology, to anthropology, and to art. If there’s any justice in the world, Marcel Ophüls’ monumental labor will be studied and debated for years.
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The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

MASTERPIECE

by David Denby

The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophüls’s four-and-one-half-hour film on the German occupation of France from 1940 to 1944, is a superb use of the film medium for the purpose of historical reconstruction and one of the greatest documentaries ever made. Ophüls’s subject is not totalitarianism per se, but the disturbing effects of totalitarianism on a relatively humane and democratic civilization. The film chronicles the most dismaying features of French life during the Vichy years: collaboration, anti-Semitism and Anglophobia, military worship, and political torture. Ophüls convincingly demonstrates that in their worst moments many Frenchmen compensated for the humiliating military defeat of June 1940 by identifying with their conquerors and acting like amateur Nazis. Yet the harshness of The Sorrow and the Pity is tempered by the director’s patient efforts to understand the motives of even the most ignominious collaborators. He’s not a witch hunter, and although he emphasizes the sour truth of widespread French acquiescence in German domination, he gives the Resistance its due: the true heroes, now aging and tired, hold forth on their glory days with reticent pride and forbearance, and one is moved to tears.

Ophüls, son of the great director Max Ophüls (who himself was chased from France by anti-Semitism during the war years), worked for the state-controlled French television (ORTF) during the sixties and has admitted he made this film in reaction to the smug self-satisfaction of the ORTF films on the Occupation, which overemphasized the importance of the Resistance and played down the extent of collaboration. Yet in order to perform the task of truth-telling, he had to go outside France for money—to Swiss, German, and Belgian television networks. The Sorrow and the Pity, completed early in 1971, has never been shown on French television (“It wasn’t banned, but simply boycotted,” says Ophüls), but it has done well in theaters and has received wide attention in the French press. The version now circulating in America was originally prepared for viewing on the BBC, and British actors offer the Downing Street or Midlands or Cockney equivalents to the original French accents—a solution which translates the complete text with dramatic effectiveness and allows us to focus our attention on faces rather than on subtitles.

In his structuring of the material, Ophüls has used a wonderfully fluid essay technique, cutting back and forth between a rich selection of historical source materials—newsreels, anti-Semitic feature films, Pétainist and Nazi propaganda—and a series of long, probing interviews with present-day survivors (an eloquent and immensely varied group, ranging from British and French national leaders to shopkeepers and peasants). As a result, we grasp not only the major political and ideological events of the time but the way these events were caused by an accumulation of personal choices. And despite the film’s extreme length and its comprehensive scope, the different elements fit together in a coherent pattern. Ophüls has recorded many of his interviews in the city of Clermont-Ferrand (including an interview with an unrepentant old Wehrmacht captain who was stationed there), and we keep hearing echoes and seeing resemblances.

During the interviews, a quality of even-handedness and generosity emerges in Ophüls’s personality; he seems eager not only to get his story but to understand fully the person before him. Each person selected—whether he resisted, collaborated, or simply got by—is allowed to explain his conduct and attitudes at considerable length, and often we are brought to that state of primary human sympathy in which we feel that everyone has his reasons, everyone his justification. We may be suddenly pulled back from sympathy by an obvious lie or a flash of rottenness, but Ophüls and co-interviewer André Harris never become bellicose or accusatory (one has only to imagine a happy hanging-judge like David Susskind in the same role to realize how effective their modesty is). One of the most interesting interviews is given by a right-wing, anti-Semitic French aristocrat (now a public-relations man) who in his youth hungered for glory and discipline and consequently wound up fighting for the Germans in a Waffen-SS unit. He’s a plausible, reasoning villain, with obviously a lot to lose, and only his trust in Ophüls could account for his willingness to speak of fascism with such candor and love.

Ophüls has achieved genuine objectivity without that flaccid “balance” which takes the punch out of so many American television documentaries. Much of the personal testimony is self-evidently true or self-evidently false, but the director takes very little for granted. He tries to demonstrate the facts whenever he can. In a long, heartrending narration, Pierre Mendès-France, an air force lieutenant at the beginning of the war, relates how anti-Semitism and Pétainist pro-German sentiment led to his arrest for “desertion” when he tried to join the Free French in North Africa; Ophüls interrupts the narration with examples of French anti-Semitic propaganda, newsreels from the time, interviews with Mendès-France’s defense lawyer (who describes his client’s magnificent defiance in court), and each time he cuts back to Mendès-France, the man takes on a greater stature and his story a greater resonance.

Ophüls catches the liars, too. Pierre Laval, the French reactionary, pro-German Premier, is defended by his son-in-law, René de Chambrun; Ophüls, conducting the interview, politely but firmly corrects Chambrun’s statistics on Jewish deportations and also cuts to interviews and a signed document to prove that Laval handed 4,000 Jewish children over to Eichmann’s henchmen for deportation to Buchenwald.

Personal recollections are subject to the infinite distortions of pride, self-interest, and guilt, but the old propaganda remains unalterable. No doubt the French will find this shabby stuff even more hypnotic and nauseating than we do. (Those platoon and bomber-crew movies, with their caricatures of “the Japs” and “the Krauts,” will constitute our native American shame as long as there are televisions in bedrooms and insomniacs to turn them on.) For sheer vileness, nothing can top the German newsreel commentator who gleefully mocks the trudging, homeless French refugees of June 1940, but the material put out by the Pétain regime shortly afterwards is only slightly less offensive. Ophüls spreads these films throughout in order to illustrate the individual stories, but taken together, they make up a picture of shame.

Pétain, the senile lion of the previous war, having just handed half of France over to the Nazis, was set up in the post-Armistice propaganda as a proud symbol of French military glory, a pseudo-Hitler constantly being mobbed by crowds and saluted by legions of stalwart Frenchmen. His regime set out to emulate the German conquerors, and Ophüls shows us the call for new French élites, the Spartan-homosexual youth camps, the disgusting public exhibitions of caricature-drawings which allowed Frenchmen to distinguish themselves from Jews, the grotesque reversal of enemies which suddenly produced England as France’s greatest foe. In the most pathetic delusion of all, the Pétain government devised a nonsensical world view in which a revived France was to serve as a military spearhead against the corrupt democracies of England and America. Ophüls cuts from this material to interviews with Albert Speer and General Walter Warlimont which make it perfectly clear that Hitler, far from intending to make France an equal partner, had nothing but contempt for a country so easily defeated and was fully prepared to reduce it to a state of vassalage. Because of Ophüls’s ironic structuring of the material, the Vichy propaganda takes on an air of surrealistic absurdity. This sweet-voiced official with the neatly combed and parted beard who so patiently explains that France will move across the Atlantic and conquer America—can he be real, or is it Fernandel in some sort of outré makeup?

Newsreels rather than propaganda cover the period after the 1944 Liberation, but the evidence of a slightly manic national hypocrisy is just as damaging. The immense cheering crowds, formerly for Pétain, now turn out for de Gaulle. Persons accused of collaboration are given harsh sentences after being tortured or are summarily executed, and women who have slept with German soldiers are placed on open-air platforms and shaved bald. Perhaps nothing else in The Sorrow and the Pity is as shocking as a procession of these women who have been transformed into the likeness of concentration-camp victims by their own countrymen. “You cannot judge unless your own country has been occupied,” Anthony Eden says in an interview. Modifying Eden’s tolerance somewhat, Ophüls’s point of view seems to be that you can judge, but you cannot say your own country would do any better.

The official propaganda of the time helps us to understand why some of the people interviewed acted stupidly or retreated into passivity, although if Ophüls has any lesson to teach, it is that each person remains responsible for his acts—neither “history” nor “the temper of the times” releases anyone from the possibility of choosing courage. He patiently questions a man named Marius Klein, a Catholic shopkeeper in Clermont-Ferrand who was afraid his customers would take him for a Jew because of his name. Klein placed an ad in the local paper announcing that he was a Frenchman, and twenty-five years later he still cannot see that this tiny act—this cautious, politic, understandable little act—lies at the very heart of persecution. He is not the only example. The hotelier who charged double if a visitor had no papers; the farmers who got rich on the black market; the German Wehrmacht captain who “never heard” about Jews being deported from his area of duty—these people, in their evasions and minor betrayals, form the disastrous everyday texture of history in times of stress, and Ophüls is perhaps the first documentary filmmaker to insist that their experiences are just as important as those of the great national leaders.

Other persons interviewed seem never to have formulated any role for themselves at all. They are decent people, but they have chosen not to exist, morally. Ophüls’s interest forces an existence on them, and they are amused, puzzled, slightly embarrassed, like children made to perform for a party of adults. A pleasant bourgeois who owns a pharmacy in Clermont-Ferrand has survived with his wealth and family intact, but his caution has condemned him to triviality. All his recollections are comic: he goes out bicycle-riding and runs into the advancing Nazi columns; he cannot get his favorite brand of cigarettes; he welcomes the opening of the hunting season as the most important event of 1942; hearing of a Nazi atrocity, he retires to his cellar and weeps. Ophüls never comments on any of this; we only hear that steady, patient, alert questioning. He is not a hanging-judge, but he certainly allows a number of people to hang themselves.

During these interviews one feels a definite discomfort—obviously, this is the way most of us would have performed in the same situation. The heroes, on the other hand, exist in a different existential state from us, and so we can relish them aesthetically and emotionally without suffering the trials of identification. They remind us of the pleasures of conventional movies, and it becomes hard to suppress movie associations. Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie, a high-spirited and amusingly self-deprecatory aristocrat who seems to have joined the Resistance mainly to scandalize his family, looks and sounds like Jean Cocteau—he’s a Jean Cocteau whose genius went into politics rather than art. One of the heroic, growling old peasants resembles Michel Simon, and then there’s Dennis Rake, a British underground agent who offers us a homosexual version of Rex Harrison’s singing spy in Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich. Rake, who seems as cautious as a retired librarian, spent the war years performing in “dubious” French nightclubs while transmitting secret information back to London. During this time, he had a love affair with a German officer but regretfully had to give him up because the man would have been in deep trouble if he (Rake) were ever caught.

Heroism, like great talent, is dazzlingly beautiful; these men refuse to claim special merit for acts which they regarded as part of the duty of citizenship, and they remain eloquently free of rancor against those of lesser civil courage.

The Sorrow and the Pity is a contribution to history, to social psychology, to anthropology, and to art. If there’s any justice in the world, Marcel Ophüls’s monumental labor will be studied and debated for years. For Americans the film has a particular interest: Vietnam has subjected us all to similar though less intense pressures, and every viewer will find himself somewhere in this comprehensive exposition of moral choice.

Atlantic Monthly, May 1972

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