Germany’s occupation of France during World War II is really two stories folded into one. The first concerns the chain of political and military prejudices that caused France, with its long, proud traditions, to collapse within a month of Germany’s attack in May 1940. The second springs from the psychological mind-set of the French that led their government into become a willing collaborator with a totalitarian aggressor and mortal enemy that had already occupied Paris once, and very nearly two times, in the previous fifty years.
Marcel Ophuls’ encyclopedic documentary The Sorrow and the Pity tackles both subjects, and in the process exposes the political and moral shortsightedness that led to one of the sorriest chapters in an infinitely sorrowful war. Ophuls’ masterwork was not welcomed by French society when it appeared because it ran counter to the myth of heroic resistance that had been officially propagated in the intervening years since the war. Though the film came out nearly 25 years after Germany’s surrender, France banned the film from television showings in a display of precisely the type of denial that led to the social cataclysm in the first place.
The Sorrow and the Pity begins in the prewar years, and quickly sketches the causes of the coming debacle: a dread of Bolshevism so intense that France, cutting off its nose to spite its face, would look the other way as the Fascists overran neighboring Spain; a deeply entrenched vein of anti-Semitism running through every layer of French society; and the blind optimism of the French people, embodied by the roses that a women’s club planted along that military folly known as the Maginot Line. Ophuls takes us in turn through France’s surrender, the division of the country into the northern (occupied) and southern (unoccupied) sectors, the establishment of the Petain government in Vichy, and the inexact squaring of accounts that occurred after the Liberation. The movie also wanders through less familiar ground, such as the scandal that erupted when some of France’s leading statesmen departed the country rather than work with the Vichy government, and the infamous roundup and deportation of Jewish children at the Velodrome d’Hiver.
Ophuls subtitled his film “Chronicle of a French City Under the German Occupation” because much of it is focused on Clermont-Ferrand, a town close to Vichy and located in the Auvergne region that was home to many Resistance activities. That subtitle is an act of almost disingenuous modesty, however, for the movie ranges far beyond any one city’s limits—the people we encounter in Sorrow cover the gamut of humanity. Retired statesmen, former soldiers from both the French and German ranks, Resistance fighters now become old farmers, teachers and writers and politicians of every stripe, and relatively common shop-keepers and businessmen talk nonstop for 4� hours about their roles in war. Some of them, such as the homosexual British officer who joined the Resistance to prove his gallantry, or the desiccated old hairdresser who still cherishes her resentment against the people who imprisoned her for pro-German activities, seem sprung from a writer’s imagination.
Ophuls interviews some forty subjects in all, and he intercuts these conversations with a mix of period newsreel footage and propaganda films. These archival materials are fascinating in their own right, and Ophuls has used them responsibly. (The recurring use of Maurice Chevalier’s determined insouciance as a stand-in for France’s general blindness would be trivial if it wasn’t so apt.) Ophuls’ collage-like editing of his materials causes us, in Pauline Kael’s words, to “see and hear evidence that corroborates or corrects or sometimes flatly contradicts” the speakers. It’s a mercurial approach, freeing the film to jump between events and ideas with the elastic rhythms of thought itself, and forcing the viewer to constantly assess, and reassess, who is telling the truth and who is not.
Despite the vastness of its subject matter, The Sorrow and the Pity is a remarkably personal film that puts us into its subjects’ shoes. The bourgeois family man who’s too busy earning a living for his family to worry about his government makes an easy target in the abstract, but it may be harder for you to judge the affable middle-aged pharmacist who sits surrounded by the children whose lives depended on him. Again and again Sorrow drags moral questions out of the shadow of hypothetical speculation and demands a concrete answer to them. A Gentile merchant named Klein, wishing to avoid arrest or bankruptcy, ran a newspaper ad during the Occupation announcing that he was not Jewish. In light of everything we know today it seems a base, detestable action, but really, what was Mr. Klein supposed to do? Change his name? Single-handedly overthrow the Nazi regime? And yet his decision still leaves that brackish aftertaste, nor does it help his case that Klein himself is a personally unlikable man. The Sorrow and the Pity plays out like a tennis match, with points constantly being scored on both sides of the net.
The two ends of this moral seesaw reach their zenith in the long interview with Christian de la Maziere, an aristocratic French youth whose hatred of Communism led him to enroll in a SS division composed exclusively of Frenchmen. Vichy’s repudiation of his activities even before the war had ended was a crushing, disillusioning experience; “done with ideas,” as a Henry James character once put it, he fell into a state of ideological weightlessness that rendered him incapable of subscribing to any political belief. The de la Maziere we see in the film is light-years from the right-wing firebrand he was as a youth, and the tinted lenses in his eyeglasses seem intended to hide his perpetual rue.
So much has happened in the years since World War II that the 35-year crisis it gave rise to—the Cold War—is now a receding memory, and even Sorrow’s most famous interview subjects will be unknown to anyone that doesn’t have some reason to remember the war years. The Europeans who came of age during World War II describe their experiences with a maturity, a lack of self-consciousness before the camera, that seem the byproduct of a vanished age. These composed, articulate people can say that an event stirred emotions in them without feeling compelled to act those emotions out; one witness recites a litany of tortures that the Nazis inflicted on his wife in a tone that refuses to ask for our sympathy or indignation. The movie throws information at us more quickly than we’re used to getting it from the media, and an incident so obscure as the English shelling of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir doesn’t receive any more annotation than D-Day does. Finally, few if any documentary filmmakers have inclined to follow the trails that Ophuls blazed, preferring instead to put the form at the service of the autobiographical, the polemical, the whimsical. It may be grotesque, but it is probably also true, that The Sorrow and the Pity is best known today as the movie that Woody Allen kept dragging his dates to in Annie Hall. (This may be why Allen lent his name to the film’s latest release, in a crisp new print and with fresh subtitles.)
This is all by way of saying that The Sorrow and the Pity presents challenges to its viewers beyond that of being an extremely long documentary about some particularly dirty events. But they are challenges born of the passage of time and of other filmmakers’ failure to keep the bar high; if the movie is tough on us, the blame cannot be laid at Marcel Ophuls’ feet. All he has done is to give us a model of oral history and a fountain of inspiration for students of human nature.
– Tom Block