Nearly 30 years ago, a 4-hour-and-20 minute French documentary about events that are now six decades in the past opened in this country and astonished audiences as well as critics just as it had in France. And now it’s back, as impressive as ever.
Because of a rights dispute, Marcel Ophuls’ monumental “The Sorrow and the Pity,” subtitled “Chronicle of a French City Under the Occupation,” has been unseen on a big screen for 15 years. Both for first-time viewers and those who are revisiting an old friend, this remains one of the most potent documentaries ever made, a piece of bravura filmmaking that transcends the specifics of its subject to become an engrossing examination of moral dilemmas and the roots of human behavior.
Presented by Woody Allen, who used the film as a cultural touchstone in “Annie Hall,” “The Sorrow and the Pity” is, in one key respect, an improvement over what Americans saw in the early 1970s. While that film was dubbed, albeit artfully, this one is subtitled, allowing the great richness of the original French and German to be heard to best effect.
Ophuls, son of the great director Max Ophuls, chose as his subject the four-year period, from 1940 through 1944, in which Germany controlled France and a complaisant government, located in Vichy and headed by Marshal Henri Philippe Petain and Prime Minister Pierre Laval, ran the country.
One reason “The Sorrow and the Pity” caused such a sensation in France was that it destroyed the country’s conventional wisdom about its behavior during the war. While the French liked to think they had all gloriously resisted the Nazi occupation, the reality, as persuasively delineated by Ophuls, was that going-along-to-get-along was widespread and accepted.
Yet, paradoxically, what makes “The Sorrow and the Pity” the remarkable film it is, is that it has no interest in pointing fingers or being judgmental. “This would be pompous, stupid and prosecutorial,” the director said in a recent interview pegged to the American reissue. “In times of great crisis, we make decisions of life and death. It’s a lot to ask people to become heroes. You shouldn’t expect it of yourself and others.”
Like a master psychologist determined to understand how those kinds of choices are made or, as the case may be, avoided, Ophuls uses the length of this film to thoughtfully explore areas in a way that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions.
The director manages this by his adroit handling of the exceptional material he’s amassed. Especially telling is Ophuls’ use of contemporary newsreels, including condescending German shots of French poverty and unapologetically racist gibes at captured black troops who fought on the French side.
The heart of “The Sorrow and the Pity,” however, lies in the remarkable interviews Ophuls conducted, culled from more than 60 hours of film. Their range and candor is compelling, from a German officer stationed in Clermont-Ferrand, to a Paris transvestite singer who joined the Resistance to demonstrate his bravery, to the film’s unacknowledged star, the formidably composed and articulate former Prime Minister Pierre Mendes France.
What emerges is a melange of little-recognized factors, from the British massacre of French sailors at Mers-el-Kebir to the country’s traditional fondness for secure, paternalistic regimes as typified by Petain, the titular head of the Vichy government. Old devils of Anglophobia and anti-Semitism proved easy to resurrect as official France provided invaluable help to its German conquerors and got to live well into the bargain. “Everyone is ashamed to say it today,” one witness recounts, “but for sure life in Paris was great.”
Both authoritative and personal, “The Sorrow and the Pity” is a film that draws you in, exerting a quiet but powerful grip as it shows how the unimaginable became completely natural. It takes its title, and its tone, from a former Resistance fighter who said, yes, there was courage during the war, “but the two emotions I experienced the most frequently were sorrow and pity.” And so it is today.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: adult subject matter and some disturbing footage.
‘The Sorrow and the Pity:
Chronicle of a French City
Under the Occupation’
Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Television Recontre and Television Suisse Romande presentation, released by Milestone Film & Video. Director Marcel Ophuls. Producers Andre Harris, Alain de Sedouy. Cinematography Andre Gazut, Jurgen Thieme. Editor Claude Vajda. Sound Bernard Migy. Running time: 4 hours, 20 minutes.
Exclusively at the Regent Showcase, 614 N. La Brea, Hollywood, (323) 312-6605.