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A Look at ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ of France in World War II

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Calling Milestone Film and Video’s VHS release of Marcel Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity” the home-video event of the year may seem premature, but it is hard to imagine that a more important or groundbreaking film will come along to supplant it.

Produced as an assignment for, but initially banned from, French television, “The Sorrow and the Pity” has been hailed as one of the greatest films, let alone documentaries, ever made. It is a painstaking, nearly 4 1/2-hour “Chronicle of a French City Under the Occupation.”

The double-videocassette set, like the film, has English subtitles and is in two parts: “The Collapse,” which charts France’s rapid fall to Germany in World War II; and “The Choice,” which shattered a myth long-cherished in France that all its citizens living under Nazi occupation joined or aided the Resistance.

Released in the U.S. in 1971, “The Sorrow and the Pity” was honored with a special award by the National Society of Film Critics, which called it “a film of extraordinary public interest and distinction.” It was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary (but lost to “The Hellstrom Chronicle”).

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Last summer, Milestone released the film theatrically for the first time in this country in the English-subtitled, original French- and German-language version. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan praised it as “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.”

For Milestone Vice President Dennis Doros, “The Sorrow and the Pity” has been somewhat of a Holy Grail. It took 15 years to negotiate and acquire the rights to the film.

“Once a film is lost to distribution, it’s lost in memory,” he said. “We’re hoping to rectify that.”

Film Has Another Spot in Movie History

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Actually, “The Sorrow and the Pity’s” place in popular culture was secured in 1977 when Woody Allen included a clip of it in his Oscar-winning romantic comedy, “Annie Hall.”

In one of the film’s signature scenes, Alvy Singer (Allen) suggests he and Annie (Diane Keaton) go see the film. “I’m not in the mood to see a four-hour documentary on Nazis,” Annie protests. In the film’s poignant conclusion, Alvy runs into Annie as she is taking a date to see the film, which Alvy counts as “a personal triumph.”

Ophuls says he was “very honored” that Allen wanted to reference “The Sorrow and the Pity” in “Annie Hall.” His only reservation, he recalled in a phone interview, was that he was concerned Allen would make fun of its running time, “because that would be bad for business.”

His fears were quelled by “an extremely nice letter” in which Allen assured Ophuls that “he would treat my film with the greatest respect and admiration. I wrote back to him and said, ‘Dear Mr. Allen: Please never mind the respect and admiration. Just make it funny.’ ”

Culled from 80 hours of footage, “The Sorrow and the Pity” is composed of archival materials, German and Allied propaganda films and contemporary interviews primarily with residents of Clermont-Ferrand, but also with French politicians and German war veterans. It was not difficult gaining their trust, Ophuls said.

“It was the year following the 1968 upheavals and the student movements,” he observed. “The older generation was very anxious to justify itself to their kids about something they had been reluctant to talk about before. And they were quite happy to have people with a camera to give them a chance to explain what they had done, or not done, during the war. It was a special moment in contemporary history, which was our good luck.”

While “The Sorrow and the Pity” shattered historical myths, its theatrical and now video release shatters a myth about the film itself. It is commonly referred to as a documentary about the Holocaust.

Ophuls, now 73 and living in Lucq-de-Bearn, France, calls the Holocaust “the most atrocious collective crime of all time,” but said “The Sorrow and the Pity,” along with his later documentaries, “The Memory of Justice” (1976) and the Oscar-winning “Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie” (1988), are more “anti-Nazi films.”

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“I’m not really a Holocaust specialist,” he said. “I may be half-Jewish, but we’re just ordinary left-wing liberals who happen to have fled Nazi Germany.”

French TV? No, de Gaulle

Ophuls himself discovered recently that the film had not been refused by French television, as he had always believed.

“It turned out,” he said, “that [French President Charles] de Gaulle personally was consulted. It was a year before his death. He was told that this is a long movie that gives some unpleasant truths. His response was, ‘France doesn’t need unpleasant truths. France needs hope'--which is rather beautiful.

“But we can only base hope on accuracy and on realism and on the vision of the past that is unsentimental and accurate as possible. But his job and mine were not the same, were they? He was the head of state and my job was trying to make movies.”

In the film, profiles in courage and patriotism (“French workers would give you the shirt off their backs,” one person says) are juxtaposed with stories of those who collaborated with the Germans, profited from the occupation or were apathetic (“Many people I know just stayed at home”).

The film is nonjudgmental and, Ophuls added, “certainly non-prosecutorial. A non-Jew, or someone who had not spent a part of the war in America, and who had not been influenced by Hollywood movies as I have been, would have probably done a different kind of picture. I went into it with fewer complexes than another Frenchman of my generation would have. I felt free and rather naive. I never thought the film would create a scandal. I didn’t see why it should. I still don’t.”

‘A New Generation Can Be Inspired by It’

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“The Sorrow and the Pity’s” video release is one “people have been waiting for for a long, long time,” said Richard Trank, who directs and produces documentaries for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. “People think of it as a joke in a Woody Allen film when it’s so much more than that, obviously. Now a new generation can be inspired by it as he was. Here is a film about morality that explores the role of ordinary people. It does [make one wonder], ‘What would I do? Would I be one of those valiant members of the Resistance, or someone who hid from it all?’ ”

Despite the heavy subject matter, Ophuls believes his work is “a rather hopeful and optimistic film.” To join the Resistance, he said, took heroism, “and there are very few heroes in real life. Why do you think they need drill sergeants in the army to push people into the line of fire? Because it’s not something that they will do on a voluntary basis.”

Ophuls called himself “a reluctant documentarian.” The son of director Max Ophuls, he said he had always believed “the royal road to movie making was my father, Orson Welles, Ernst Lubitch, Frank Capra and more recent people like Francois Truffaut, Robert Altman, Woody Allen and John Cassavetes. All of that is so much richer and more fun. Instead of visiting old Nazis, maybe you can work with Juliette Binoche.”

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“The Sorrow and the Pity” retails for $95. To order, call (800) 603-1104. It will be available in video stores Feb. 6. The DVD version is due in March.


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