The Sorrow and the Pity Review

Considering its stature, it’s astonishing that Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity (Le chagrin et la pitié) has not had a commercial release in the UK until 2004. My best guess is that legal reasons concerning a participant still alive at the time might have been a reason. Or was it simply that no-one saw an audience for a four-hour, black and white subtitled documentary, despite its Oscar nomination, and despite its obvious use as a primary source for World War Two historians? I don’t know for sure, but it’s very likely that many people will know of this film simply as Woody Allen’s choice of date movie in Annie Hall.

Marcel Ophuls is the son of a great director (Max Ophuls) but he has taken a very different path to that of his father. While Ophuls Senior took as his subject love and its price, his son found his niche as a documentarian dealing with one of the great subjects of the twentieth Century, World War Two and the nature of guilt. The Sorrow and the Pity described the story of the occupation of France through the experiences and eyewitness testimony of the people who lived through it, in particular the people of Clermont-Ferrand. The film was made in 1968 for French television, but it was not shown there until 1981 as its revelations were considered so scandalous. The Sorrow and the Pity was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1971. Ophuls has continued to make epic-length documentaries since (The Memory of Justice and .Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie among them) and his influence is clearly felt in Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour investigation into the Holocaust, Shoah. But The Sorrow and the Pity will probably go down as Ophuls’s masterpiece. It’s an entirely engrossing film, despite its length (admittedly divided into two parts) and one of the greatest documentaries ever made.

Ophuls tells his story with a mix of contemporary interviews and archive footage. His interviewees include ordinary men and women – a farmer who joined the Resistance, an aristocrat who joined with the Nazis largely through fear of the Communists – up to major figures such as singer Maurice Chevalier, future UK Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden, and future French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France. Ophuls and his colleague André Harris interview English and Germans as well. One of the former is Dennis Rake, a homosexual spy who fell in love with a German officer. The latter include the commander of the occupying forces in Clermont-Ferrand, filmed in 1969 at his daughter’s wedding, who is entirely unrepentant. As we see them and listen to their words, it’s clear that many of the interviewees have agendas - and evasions - of their own, and much of this is left for ourselves to judge. In many cases, the French neither collaborated nor resisted, just got on with their lives as best they could. Those who did collaborate did so because that was the thing to do.

Some of the archive footage is very disturbing. We see a German propaganda film that alleges that the weakness of the French army is due to the presence of black soldiers. We are also shown extracts from the notoriously anti-Semitic film Jew Süss. In the second half Nazi atrocities are discussed: not shown, mercifully, but verbally described, and there’s no doubt many people will find this distressing. That is the reason for the 12A certificate that The Sorrow and the Pity carried on its cinema release in 2004. This DVD, being a documentary, is exempt from classification, but I would suggest that anyone with young children should take that certificate seriously, although I doubt that many youngsters would sit through a film like this in the first place.

The final word should go to Sir Anthony Eden: “One who has not suffered the horrors of an occupying power has no right to judge a nation that has.”

The Sorrow and the Pity is divided into two parts, each presented on a separate disc. Part One, “L’effondrement” (“The Collapse”) runs 120:46, while Part Two, “Le Choix” (“The Choice”), runs 128:38 . Disc One is single-layered, disc two dual-layered. The DVDs are encoded for all regions. These DVDs were presumably brought into distribution with the cooperation of the BBC, who showed the film on BBC4 in 2004, as each part begins and ends with the logos of the BBC’s documentary strand Storyville.

The film is given an anamorphic transfer in a ratio of 1.75:1. Given the film’s television origins and its use of archive footage, that ratio seems odd, but apart from some cropping of archive footage it seems accurate. The interview footage is in grainy black and white and there are scratches and spots frequently visible. It’s no worse nor better than the condition of the archive footage. It remains entirely watchable throughout, though you shouldn’t expect state-of-the-art picture quality from a film like this.

The soundtrack is the original mono, mainly in French. Sir Anthony Eden speaks mostly in fluent French, but the other English interviewees and the German ones speak their own languages, which is translated into French via a voiceover and then subtitled into English. In some parts of the second half, English interviewees are left in English without any voiceover. The majority of the film is in French, with optional English subtitles. The words people say are quite clear throughout, as is the music, made up from popular songs of the period. Part One has fourteen chapter stops, Part Two sixteen.

The only extra on the DVDs itself is on the second disc. This is an interview with Marcel Ophuls that took place at the National Film Theatre after a showing of the film on 22 May 2004 beginning at 8.57 pm. I can be as specific as that as the video footage has a time and date stamp throughout. Ian Christie is the interviewer. Ophuls is seventy-seven years old but still very sharp and possessed of a fine sense of irony. He speaks in fluent if accented English. The interview runs 28:56 but you sense it could easily run longer and there is much more to say about the film. The DVD packaging apparently contains notes on the making of the film, but this was not included with the checkdiscs sent to me for review.

It’s sixty years now since World War Two ended, and the people who lived through that period are now dead or very elderly. For that reason, this documentary and others like it are important and should be seen in case we forget about those darkest days in the middle of the last century. The Sorrow and the Pity asks us uncomfortable questions – how would we have reacted in similar circumstances? – and asks us to make our own judgements. If you have any interest in history, this DVD will be an essential purchase.

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Last updated: 03/07/2018 07:40:36

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