The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

What “The Sorrow and the Pity” does more brilliantly than anything else is to avoid abstractions and give its human portraits of people who tried to land on their feet during chaotic times.

In the late 1960s, director Marcel Ophüls was commissioned by French TV to shoot a documentary about the 1940-1944 Nazi occupation. He unearthed old sins, uncovered old witnesses and came back with a devastating 265-minute expose, a rap sheet as long as your arm and a film which exploded the myth of Vichy France as a hotbed of patriotic fervour. So troublesome were the picture's findings that it was not screened on French TV until 1981.
Weaving vibrant newsreel footage with contemporary interviews, The Sorrow and the Pity installs the town of Clermont-Ferrand as the microcosm for a cowed, craven country, presided over by the Blimpish Marshal Pétain and serenaded by the honeyed tones of Maurice Chevalier.
 Collaboration is the norm. A hairdresser shops her friend to the Gestapo, while a shopkeeper named Klein puts an ad in the local paper to assure customers he's not Jewish. France, it appears, was caught off guard and then sold down the river by its own middle-class. "The workers always showed more resistance," explains one old-timer. "But the bourgeoisie were scared."
In the film's second half, heroes belatedly emerge from the rubble. We are told of Gaspar, the bull-necked boss of the local Maquis, a mercurial Jewish politician who broke out of his prison cell and the faceless students from Clermont-Ferrand high school, who joined the Resistance and are no longer around to tell the tale. "Many of them have streets named after them," boasts their proud former teacher, who stood by and did nothing.

The occupation was such a complex matter, so much a matter of human nature, they seem to say. It is hard to explain to an outsider (and maybe even to oneself) exactly how a decision was reached, and why some Frenchmen collaborated with the Germans while others resisted and most simply tried to carry on business as usual.

Director Marcel Ophuls spent more than two years compiling the 50 hours of footage that was eventually edited into “The Sorrow and the Pity.” He spoke with the little people - some of them so anonymous they seem ashamed of their opinions, if indeed they have any - and with the larger figures such as Pierre Mendes-France, Georges Bidault, Anthony Eden and the German armaments czar Albert Speer.

The striking thing about all of these people is that, so far as I can remember, no one on either side brings up questions of morality in an attempt to explain his own actions. No one says that he acted as he did because he was right and the other side was wrong. This was certainly the basis for actions of many of the participants, but they seem reluctant to admit to such deep motivation.
The movie makes the point that France was the only nation that actually collaborated during the war and that de Gaulle’s “Free French” in London were in the embarrassing position of not being a government-in-exile, because France’s government remained in residence.

Those who “went along” did so, not because they were lacking in patriotism or moral backbone, but because it seemed the thing to do. Ophuls has pointed out in an interview that the establishment tends to remain the establishment, no matter what. To be in the resistance, he speculates, “you had to be a misfit, one who wouldn’t go along,” and this is a point the movie makes.

le chagrin et la pitié #1



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