By Gavin Smith
The Sorrow and the Pity
Dir. Marcel Ophuls, 1971, France, Milestone Films
“She was living in Soho with some guy. When I met her, she was, of all things, dragging him in to see The Sorrow and the Pity, which I counted as a personal triumph.” Thus cemented in the popular imagination (and, as the years passed, first heard of by many) thanks to this line in Annie Hall, Marcel Ophuls’s essential 260-minute 1971 documentary on the Nazi occupation of France during World War II is back, restored after, lo, 50 years.
As monumental as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Ophuls’s riveting film will come as a revelation even to those familiar with the Netflix series Un village français (2009-2017) not to mention those who have only seen, say, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969), Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974), and Au revoir les enfants (1987) or more recent efforts like Rose Bosch’s The Roundup (2010) and the current A Radiant Girl (2021). As a two-part, six-year saga, The Sorrow and the Pity transcends any possible fictional treatment of the events, yielding a prismatic image of what it was like to live in France through the war years.
Ophuls’s film is a stunning feat of oral history, interweaving the lucid and at times jaw-dropping testimony of a multitude of eyewitnesses and participants with extensive and eye-opening newsreel footage from French, German, and British archives. Part one, “The Collapse,” details the defeat of the French army and the Nazi conquest, and the rapid surrender of France codified in the 1940 armistice with Germany—which nominally divided the country between the German-controlled zone and one-fifth of French territory in the central-south, administered by the Vichy Government under the leadership of the semi-senile Marshal Pétain, who is hailed by the public as “the guardian of French honor.” Part two, “The Choice,” focuses on the civilian response to the German army’s eventual occupation of Vichy France. If the first part is about collaboration and is populated for the most part by the bourgeoisie and the political class, the second is about resistance and introduces many more working-class voices while turning to take a hard look at the Resistance’s endemic factionalism.
Rather than attempting a definitive overall history of the Occupation, Ophuls opts to focus largely on a specific city, Clermont-Ferrand, which, along with its outlying areas, serves as a microcosm of the national experience. Located in central France, Clermont-Ferrand was 37 miles from the Vichy France seat of government; it was also the birthplace of the Maquis, the rural guerilla army that comprised one of a dozen or so branches of the Resistance; and in late 1942 the city was fully occupied by the Nazis, as Vichy France’s illusory autonomy crumbled. (Fun fact: Clermont-Ferrand is the setting for Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s.)
The views and reminiscences on display range from collaborators and collaborator-adjacent to those who were to a greater or lesser extent part of the Resistance, to even a handful of surprisingly forthcoming and unapologetic occupiers from the ranks of the Wehrmacht. All strata of French society bear witness, from aristocrats all the way down to farmers, shopkeepers, and even a movie theater owner (there’s a strong section on the importing of German films for French consumption). Supplementing this, high-level French and British politicians are called upon to supply a wider perspective and context (notably then-British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden). The Sorrow and the Pity stops well short of The Rules of the Game’s “everyone has his reasons,” but we see little of the harassment of unsympathetic interview subjects that Ophuls was prone to in later films (and which enliven them, I would add).
Ophuls described the film as an effort to “to analyze four years of collective destiny,” but he also had an underlying agenda—to counter the cherished myth of a France that whole-heartedly and heroically resisted the Nazis tooth and nail. The film looks past this chauvinistic myth of national pride and glory, promulgated and perpetuated in the name of national unity and to assuage any residual feelings of guilt or shame by former Free French leader General de Gaulle (elected President in 1959). Ophuls wants to expose the dirty truth. Mission accomplished. (And this hard-nosed revisionist approach is where Ophuls parts ways with, say, Ken Burns.)
Almost without exception, The Sorrow and the Pity’s interviewees speak calmly and unemotionally. In the Winter 1973/4 issue of Sight & Sound, Ophuls explained why: “People who had 30 years to reflect are perhaps going to be more interesting than people who are right in the middle of a situation, who will give you a lot of clichés and rhetoric.” And indeed the film demonstrates an impressive coolness of approach and refusal of bombast. By contrast, the gloating rhetoric of the excerpts from German newsreel commentaries, with their talk of “Jewish warmongers,” “Franco-English plutocrats,” and “English-loving deserters and traitors,” is allowed to speak for itself. (There’s also incredible footage of captured French colonial foot soldiers from Africa, sarcastically referred to as “the black brothers of the French… these are the guardians of civilization.”)
The on-location interviewing conducted by Ophuls and his co-producer Alain de Sedouy is plainly shot and redolent of the televisual aesthetics of its era. No matter: this is a film that was made in the editing room. The Sorrow and the Pity was in fact originally conceived for television broadcast. When it became clear to Ophuls and his producers that their employer, the state television network ORTF (L’Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision française), was unwilling to support an undertaking that would challenge the official version of the noble French Resistance, they turned to Swiss and German television for funding. While both countries broadcast the finished film, a risky theatrical release was the only option in France—which proved successful beyond their wildest dreams. ORTF didn’t officially reject the film, they simply ignored it, and 12 years would elapse before it was finally broadcast on French television.
No wonder. The official version of the French occupation swept plenty under the carpet, but Ophuls is right there to inconveniently lift it up, revealing, among other things: the resurgence of virulent antisemitism, with Jews scapegoated, along with communists, parliamentarians and the British, for France’s humiliating defeat; the role of the French police in aiding the Germans in their arrests and manhunts, including the rounding up of the Jewish population; the military collaboration that Pétain negotiated with Hitler leading to the formation of a French division of the Waffen SS who fought on the Eastern front alongside the Germans; the tens of thousands of industrial workers who gladly took paid employment in Germany; and a choice newsreel of French air force pilot Gontier de Vasse denouncing the British and calling for France to claim “its rightful place in a New Europe.” (Curiously Ophuls omits the activities of the Carlingue, the French auxiliary militia of the Gestapo, depicted in Lacombe, Lucien). Turns out the unpalatable truth of The Sorrow and the Pity is that France was the sole occupied country with a functioning government to co-operate with the Nazis.
It’s impossible to conclude without singling out a handful of unforgettable figures from the amazing cast of characters/rogues' gallery assembled by Ophuls. The film begins unexpectedly with a wedding in Germany and the father of the bride, former Wehrmacht Captain Helmuth Tausend, delivering a speech at the reception. Later Tausend inadvertently refers to the German forces as “the bad guys,” only to clarify that the French refugees “soon realized we had only good intentions.” At the end Ophuls asks him why he continues to wear war decorations awarded by the Nazis on his suit lapel and, without batting an eye, he maintains that he’s entitled to and earned them.
Then there’s pharmacist Marcel Verdier, interviewed with his teenage children around him, who supplies the film’s title. His daughter asks, “Was there anything other than courage in the Resistance?” and he replies, “Of course, but for me, personally, the two emotions I felt most frequently were sorrow and pity.”
An inordinate amount of screen time is devoted to aristocrat and veteran of the French division of the Waffen SS, Christian de la Mazière, a genial and fascinating presence who recalls his admiration for the German soldiers “with their naked chests” and how the Wehrmacht’s prowess and discipline provided “for the first time . . . an army to which we could aspire.” (In his 1971 article in Positif, Paul Louis Therard claims that de la Mazière’s interviews were prescripted, and indeed the continuity of one talk-and-walk sequence does seem suspiciously staged.)
I’m particularly glad that Ophuls couldn’t resist including his off-topic interview with Denis Rake, a British agent with the SOE (Special Operations Executive), filmed cradling a cat in his lap as he recounts posing as a Belgian, living undercover in Paris as a cabaret drag performer, and enjoying a five-month gay liaison with a German officer. Rake poignantly observes, “I wanted to demonstrate the same courage as my friends . . . being homosexual at that time in my life it was one of my greatest fears that I wouldn’t have the courage to do certain things.”
The last nod should go to farmer and resistance fighter Louis Grave, who was sent to Buchenwald after a neighbor informed on him. Ophuls asks, “Have you ever been tempted to get revenge?” “What for?” replies Grave.
Pauline Kael memorably wrote of the film: “You feel the elation of using your mind—of evaluating the material and perceiving how it’s all developing while you’re storing it up.” She’s right on target. To be sure, The Sorrow and the Pity takes its time and is deliberately paced, and yet all the same I doubt I’ll see a more gripping thriller this year.