All films relate to their place and time, but some are nearly incomprehensible out of context. That’s the case with Marcel Ophuls’s great 1969 documentary, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” even though its story is well known. The two-part, four-hour film, which is streaming on OVID in a new restoration and is also available on Milestone and Kanopy, is about the Second World War in France, focussed on life in the small city of Clermont-Ferrand, in the center of the country. It covers the German invasion and the Occupation of France; the formation of the Vichy regime, just twenty-nine miles from Clermont, under Marshal Philippe Pétain; the rise of the French Resistance; and the Liberation in 1944 and its aftermath. What has made those facts familiar is, in significant measure, the film itself: it’s a work of history that changed the course of history, and its impact on its moment is exemplified in the opposition that it faced and ultimately overcame.
In “The Sorrow and the Pity,” Ophuls—making his first feature-length documentary—tells a vast and intricate story in a form that now seems classical, even hackneyed. It’s composed mainly of interviews with a wide-ranging group of participants and witnesses to the events. Ophuls cuts the material into interview bites and assembles them to develop the story’s arc; the interviews are punctuated with illustrative archival footage. As familiar as the format is now, when Ophuls made “The Sorrow and the Pity,” few documentaries of note were constructed in this way. Extended on-camera interviews depended on portable synch-sound equipment that was developed only in the late nineteen-fifties, resulting in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s “Chronicle of a Summer” (the film for which Morin coined the term “cinéma-vérité”), Robert Drew’s “Primary,” and such successors as the Maysles brothers’ “Salesman” and Frederick Wiseman’s “Hospital.”
Unlike those modern masterworks, however, “The Sorrow and the Pity” is neither immersive nor reflexive. Instead, its originality is found in its very simplicity—its deceptive modesty. Though Ophuls and his co-writer, André Harris, are heard, sometimes even seen, in discussion with the interview subjects, the movie doesn’t emphasize these interactions or their centrality to the onscreen action. Rather, their intervention is at its most emphatic, and most conspicuous, in the editing of the large body of interview footage (between fifty and sixty hours’ worth, according to Ophuls) into a taut, coherent narrative. Ophuls and Harris rarely challenge the subjects’ assumptions or assertions; putting their interviewees at ease, they collect a varied and copious array of accounts and perspectives. This very variety—its panoramic scope, its complexity, its conflicting points of view—is the film’s raison d’être.
The interviews feature a remarkable range of participants, filmed on location (in their homes or workplaces, or in public, or at a cannily chosen site of significance) and suggesting a cross-section of French society during the war: a sampling of classes, ideologies, and wartime activities that renders the individual speakers and their experiences both singular and exemplary. (Only the dearth of women as onscreen subjects diminishes the film’s representative authority.) “The Sorrow and the Pity” includes Resistance fighters from modest circumstances—whether farmers or working people—as well as high-ranking politicians and even aristocrats who were motivated by patriotism, indignation, or ideology. The film similarly spotlights collaborators from the cosseted haute bourgeoisie, along with middle-class functionaries and small-business owners who were pressured into coöperation with the occupiers. There’s even an unrepentant defender of Vichy (and the son-in-law of one of its officials) who takes grotesque pains to minimize the effects of the Holocaust on Jews in France and of the French government’s part in it. Ophuls also puts the daily life of the Occupation and the Resistance into an international political context, by way of interviews with British politicians and officers, German officials (including a translator for Hitler), and the French politician Pierre Mendès France, who worked with the Free French government-in-exile of Charles de Gaulle. (Along with his tale of anti-Semitic persecution under Vichy and his escape from France, Mendès France offers warnings about the enduring and unquenched temptations of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.)
Ophuls’s editorial storytelling has a deft brilliance that moves imperceptibly between the personal and the general, the representative and the distinctive. There’s a mighty, quasi-literary power to the interviews: the story of a Clermont shopkeeper named Klein, who took pains to avoid being misidentified as Jewish (a strange anticipation of Joseph Losey’s 1976 drama, “Monsieur Klein”); a woman who’d been convicted, based on handwriting samples, of denouncing a resister to the Gestapo; and the story of a gay British spy with a German lover in Paris. We learn of the narrow escape of French politicians to Morocco en route to London and the excruciating decision of British leaders to bomb the French fleet in Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria (then a French territory), to prevent it from falling into German hands. The farmer Louis Grave, who was active in the Resistance, was denounced, arrested, and deported to Buchenwald, but, after the Liberation, he refused to seek revenge against the person who denounced him to the Gestapo—nor did Grave offer forgiveness. He bore the knowledge of the betrayal as if it were a form of moral revenge, superior to prosecution or violence.
This range of backgrounds, inclinations, and activities marks the frame-shattering power of Ophuls’s practical aesthetic. He states publicly what, in the twenty-five years that separated the film from the Liberation, had been privately understood, whether in family circles or in the halls of power, but had gone largely unexpressed. He contradicts the foundational myth of France’s postwar Fourth and Fifth Republics—namely, that France, with the exception of some dastardly politicians and a relatively small number of collaborators, was largely a country of resistance, that the French Resistance far outweighed and outnumbered French collaborationists. For that matter, the film also presents an intellectual X-ray of the ideological morass of anti-Semitism and anti-Communism that underlay France’s defeat by Germany and readiness to collaborate—the demonization of the democratic moderate left, the preference of many for an anti-democratic far right, the racist hatred that fuels such a bent, and the admiration for a bloodthirsty foreign dictator who fosters and abets those authoritarian sympathies. (A word to the wise.)
“The Sorrow and the Pity” in no way diminishes the commitment or effectiveness of Resistance fighters or their behind-the-scenes abetters and enablers. Far from debunking the Resistance, Ophuls intensifies our vision of the heroism of the resisters, precisely because their actions were exceptional—because they took place amid the heads-down passivity of many neighbors and the active hostility of others. What’s more, the documentary also emphasizes that active sympathizers to the Resistance, who didn’t bear arms but aided it merely by knowing about it—by knowing that their neighbors were engaged in partisan combat and saying nothing—were also heroic. The potential price of resistance—arrest, torture, execution, deportation to concentration camps—shrieks through the interviews, too, highlighting the courage of resisters while also suggesting empathy with those who merely went about their business. One interviewee, the British politician Anthony Eden, serves as something like Ophuls’s spokesperson, reserving his judgment upon the people of France under Vichy by asserting that those who haven’t experienced “the horror of an occupation by a foreign power” have “no right to pronounce” upon those who did.
In its matter-of-factness, the film is nonetheless a work of outrage, less at individuals, even the most contemptible on view, than at France as a whole—postwar France and its self-silencing, self-exonerating political mythology. There’s something strangely, implicitly meta about “The Sorrow and the Pity”: its main story is that France has been telling itself a story. Yet that myth, of a nation of resisters, isn’t explicitly unfolded in the film any more than, say, the myth of Manifest Destiny is unfolded in the greatest Hollywood Westerns; it’s there as the unchallenged and ambient background to the action, the underlying idea on which the action depends. In “TheSorrowand the Pity,” that “action” is the talk that reveals the fabrication of that founding myth. The entirety of the movie is, in effect, a counter-story—i.e., the complex and intractable truth, which had little place in French public life or in the sense of French identity. It’s as if all of France were implicated as the documentary’s virtual reverse angle—its challenging, defiant closeup.
Ophuls, who was born in 1927, was a participant in the Events of May, 1968. He, along with his film’s producers, Harris and Alain de Sedouy, were working for French television at the time and went on strike, which cost them their jobs and their programs. For all the political demands of students and other activists at the time, the crucial focus of May was a cultural shift: a breaking-down of ossified mores, of the out-of-touch and out-of-synch barrier between France’s public culture and its residents’ lives.
Yet the film, in attempting to break the silence on the realities of Vichy France, was subjected to a silencing. “The Sorrow and the Pity” premièred in West Germany in 1969, but, although intended for French television (which was then entirely state-run), it was rejected for broadcast by means of a subterfuge that was itself a silencing. The filmmakers held private screenings, but television’s bureaucratic decision-makers simply never attended them, claiming that they had no time to consider such a long film—as if, in trying to avoid the likely controversy of rejecting the film on its merits, they were ignoring it in the hope that it would go away. Instead, the movie received a very limited theatrical release, and wasn’t shown on French television until October, 1981—five months after François Mitterrand, a Socialist, was elected President of France. Once it did air, according to Le Monde, “it wasn’t the political and sociological event that the channels had anticipated.” This ostensible failure was a mark of the film’s success: in its relatively clandestine way, it had already done its epochal job. The silence was broken; the revelations had become common knowledge.♦