The Sorrow and the Pity
We British have a very simple way of boiling down WWII in our school history lessons. We were the good-hearted nation prone to stop any violent conflict. The Nazis showed up and did evil things, we went to war with them and we won. But for the documentary filmmaker, Marcel Ophüls, the son of the esteemed drama director, Max Ophüls, it is so much more than that. No less black-and-white and more morally grey so to speak with not only us but all the other nations taking part in the biggest war known to man. To understand that opinion any further, his 1969 documentary, ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’, has newly been reissued on Arrow Academy Blu-Ray for the first time, making it widely available here in the UK.
‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ covers the years 1940 – 1944 in French history and its specific target is the Vichy regime. And within its mammoth 4 hours and 10-minute runtime, it obviously covers it in thorough detail. This film tells the story of a German occupied country, a place so divided that it paints a frightening portrait of a country on the edge of controlled chaos. Ophüls uses interviews to the best of his advantage. The cast of characters includes former SS officers and supporters of the Vichy government, but also with resistance fighters of Clermont-Ferrand – a city in the heart of France. Add in reels and reels of archival footage, and this will prove itself as a massive turn off for many.
But to lessen the fear and doubt of watching this beast of a documentary in its rough and ready approach, ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ is split into two parts. Part One, ‘The Collapse’, has a lengthened interview with Pierre Mendès-France who served jail time for his actions made against the then government. Ironically, he later became France’s prime minister. As for Part Two, ‘The Choice’, the leading interviewee is Christian de la Mazière, the opposite of Mendès-France, an aristocrat who embraced Fascism and joined thousands of youths battling it out on the Eastern Front disguised as German officers.
‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ is crafted in the same vein as Claude Lanzmann’s colossal Holocaust documentary ‘Shoah’. But the chief difference between the two is that ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ isn’t lenient towards one side or the other, unlike ‘Shoah’ which was one-sided and refused to tell the story of the Polish people themselves. Ophüls has balanced out conflicting opinions, time is given to both the far left as well as the same, if not more to the far right.
But the strange thing is that none of the contributors give a deep motivation into why a certain person acted the way he/she did, rather, they give a reason that on the surface seems so humdrum and odd, until you realise all along that Ophüls is the puppet master behind the scenes and reveals hidden feelings from everyone that charges the film as it goes along. For example, in the second half, Ophüls interviews a beautician named Madame Solange, a woman who survived torture after France’s liberation for showing support towards Marshal Pètain, the head of the Vichy government. Ophüls asks why she supported him, and Solange anxiously responds with “I don’t know, I just did”, but he continues to dig further until Ophüls has prodded out Solange’s anti-Semitism for all to see.
The participants comment on an all manner of things. The aforementioned Anti-Semitism, xenophobia, propaganda films, the then ruling Pètain government, to even statements that seem so unimportant but acts as rich detail for any particular character. Very early in the first half, Ophüls interviews a French farmer for how all his life, the owners of restaurants told him that there was no meat for order. Until the Germans occupied the country and somehow beef magically materialised from thin air for the serving officers to eat. The farmer ends the interview along the lines of “that’s our steak! And it was French steak too, home-grown and everything!”.
But in one of the film’s most fascinating sequences, it brings the local cinemas into the matter with its forced display of German propaganda films. One former projectionist comments that the French people could easily tell which film Nazi Germany had manufactured, even when they had French film stars. The notable example being ‘Jud Süß’ (pronounced “jud suss”), a reviled piece of propaganda straight from the office of Joseph Goebbels which ends with the hanging of a Jewish man and an order that all the Jewish men and women are to leave the fictional German town within three days.
What’s remarkable about ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ is that it is simply honest. It isn’t biased or favours one opinion over another, it covers everything thing in sight that we should know about, or for those willing enough to go through an extended history lesson. He covers everyone, the heads of state, the upper class and even the small folk living in fear. And during all of this meticulous detail, it doesn’t once celebrate the French overcoming occupying powers. In fact, the film even states the opposite, that when Germany invaded France, it brought out the worst of racist and xenophobic attitudes in some citizens. So much so that after its release in 1969, those beliefs that many locked away for years still exist.
‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ isn’t an easy watch and, judging from the title, it doesn’t suggest that at all. It is tough to sit through, it is gruelling in areas – it shows archival sequences where women get their heads shaved off for humiliation. And for the record, it shouldn’t be taken in all at once. Instead, I recommend to watch it chunk by chunk much like its cousin, ‘Shoah’. But why? Because it accounts for extremely depressing matters at hand that personally speaking, why would you want to sit through all four hours of it at once? Yes, it’s long, demanding, or for some, arduous. But give it time spread across a couple of nights, and it is rich, noble and a very brave film with a lot to say.