by Stanley Kauffmann
Last year, a four-and-a-half-hour documentary from Argentina, The Hour of the Furnaces, a fine work. This year a four-and-a-half-hour documentary from France, The Sorrow and the Pity, another fine work. Furnaces is revolutionary propaganda, Sorrow is historical inquiry. The first film looks at the past to make people behave differently in future. The second one looks at the past and, rather chillingly, leaves the future up to us.
The subject is the German occupation of France, the only occupied country in the Second World War that collaborated with Germany. The director, Marcel Ophüls (son of the director of Lola Montes), has not tried to explain France’s behavior; he has put a great deal of varied evidence in front of us, while a lot of the people who were involved are still around to talk of it, and has juxtaposed it with newsclips from the past. A literary critic, intending to praise this picture, called it “a fascinating hodgepodge.” I’ve rarely read a less accurate description of anything. At the furthest remove from a hodgepodge, this film is an extraordinarily well-wrought work, which makes part of its point through its being.
It begins with a wedding in Germany in 1969. The father of the bride, interviewed at the banquet table, surrounded by his wife and the young couple, is a former Wehrmacht captain who was stationed in Clermont-Ferrand, near Vichy, during the Occupation. His comments about the present and the past take us to Clermont-Ferrand, on which city the whole film is based. A series of interviews is threaded through the film; and earlier film material about the people interviewed, or the matters they describe, is interwoven. The subjects are residents of the city and vicinity, other people whose comments bear on what happened there, and well-known people whose careers were involved with all of Europe.
Among the well-known people are Albert Speer, Walter Warlimont of the Wehrmacht Supreme Command, Lord Avon (Anthony Eden), General Sir Edward Spears, Jacques Duclos, the French Communist, and, thank heaven, Pierre Mendès-France, surely one of the few great men in politics in our time, shamefully wasted, who predictably reveals himself as thoughtful, witty, modest, resolute, and sad.
Lesser-known figures are no less fascinating: an aristocratic French rightist who fought with the forgotten Charlemagne Division of the Waffen SS on the Russian front; two stout old farmer-brothers who were in the Resistance; a pharmacist; an English musical-comedy performer who had been a secret agent; a former Wehrmacht soldier who had been a prisoner of the maquis in 1944; a pair of old French schoolmasters. Others, many others.
The film is in two parts, one about the fall of France, the other about events under the Germans until the Liberation. Ophüls has worked for balance in his materials, believing—quite rightly—that the best balance he could make would be the best case he could make. Certain matters are skimped, the role of the Church, for instance; otherwise, Ophüls shows us that Anglophobia and anti-Semitism are sometimes latent but always chronic in France, that venality exists there as everywhere, and so does heroism; but that, for all the seeming explanations, the reason for difference between France and, say, Denmark is like quicksilver in the cracks. Honor the heroes, Ophüls seems to say, we have to cling to the fact that they existed; but be careful of feeling superior to the others.
Some of the news clips Ophüls has found are absorbing: Hitler touring the almost-deserted early morning streets of Paris; Hitler being (if you can believe it) almost attractive in a laughing conversation in his railroad car. And besides the preordained contrasts between past and present, Ophüls has worked out some nice harmonies in the present: for instance, Mendes-France’s account of his trial by the Vichy government alongside his lawyer’s comments on the trial.
One talent that is often skimped in discussing this kind of film is the ability to interview. I assume that lots of subjects were cut out because they didn’t respond well, but lots of material is cut from any picture. Ophüls and Andre Harris, who worked with him, asked the kinds of questions that drew genuine answers, not interviewese, from much-interviewed people: as when Spears speaks of seeing French sailors in London with English girls on the day that the British fleet was to bombard the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir.
Another reason for the interviews’ success is preparation. When the smarmy Comte de Chambrun, professional apologist for his father-in-law Pierre Laval, cites statistics in support of Vichy’s humanitarianism, Ophüls interrupts to say that he knows those statistics, and knows that they are partial and misleading. Then he holds the camera for a moment on Chambrun’s silence.
Small keen revelations abound. Mendes-France recalls his nighttime escape from a Vichy prison into a tree-lined street (something like Bresson’s A Man Escapes) and how he had to linger on top of the wall until a pair of lovers below decided to go home to bed. The English secret agent says that one reason for his (very courageous) service was that he is a homosexual and wanted to prove himself. The Grave brothers (like farmers out of Rouquier’s Farrebique) take us down into their old wine cellar for a glass, commenting that they’ve been down those steps a good many times in their long lives; and Louis Grave tells us that he refused to revenge himself after the war on the neighbor whose denunciation sent him to Buchenwald. (“What for?” he asks with quiet acceptance of more than we will ever see.) La Vigerie, a founder of the Liberation movement, tells us with humorous candor that he thinks most people who came into the Resistance were maladjusted. (Something like Koestler’s theory about radicals.) The German ex-soldier says that it’s just as well his country lost the war or else they’d all now be doing Occupation service in Africa and America; and in his Lederhosen he takes another sip of beer. (On the other hand, I’ve met veterans of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe who hold views of their service very different from those of any German in this film.)
Another technique has to be praised highly: the dubbing. In a picture of this kind, where there is so much talk and where there is no acting, probably dubbing was the best solution to the language problem. The English is presented as translation, not as lip-sync replacement. A speaker starts in his own language, and then his voice is faded under an English-language translation. Not a novel device, but it’s used very carefully here, with voices that sound apt.
One more production point. This film was sponsored by three television networks, French, Swiss, and German. Switzerland is not mentioned in the film. France and Germany are often shown unflatteringly. The film has been broadcast on German TV, not French TV. (Although it has played in French theaters.)
The Sorrow and the Pity is, first, a record. It was important that these statements, from chiefs to a hairdresser who served fifteen years for collaboration, should be preserved, both as they support and contradict what is generally believed.
Second, it is a reminder. History consists, for the most part, of material we never knew or material we have forgotten: no one can keep the whole past on the leading edge of his mind. (I had completely forgotten Mers-el-Kebir, in which the British killed 1600 French sailors. Lord Avon makes clear the hard decision his government had to make, to keep the French ships out of German hands; still, those were 1600 people, too.) Without the maximum possible knowledge of the past, especially the immediately antecedent past, we know little of who we are and even less of what we ought to do.
Third, most important from any view, The Sorrow and the Pity is a fine film. This “hodgepodge” is so well made that its very existence is a statement about its subject. Frank interviews and ironic contrasts are not new. But to put all the elements of this picture in reciprocating balance, moved by internal rhythms, framed by a sharp pictorial eye, guided by a good political intelligence, is to make history into art. Through the richness of the work, through the experiencing of it as film, the facts deepen. When we see the Grave brothers in their fields, with the exquisite Auvergne hills behind them, we understand a little more of both the sorrow and the pity.
There is no neat lesson to be drawn, no high-hearted resolve with which to leave the theater. Frenchmen are not Martians, they are our kinsmen—the heroes and the collaborators and the great mass of the apathetic. We all remember Stephen Dedalus saying, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Ophüls implies that Dedalus was wasting his time; there is no awakening. One is more sensible to try for a little decency within the nightmare.
New Republic, April 15, 1972