Unlike Alvy, I watched it alone
THE SORROW AND THE PITY — Marcel Ophuls, France, 1971, 7
Color me impressed by Rod Dreher’s Herculean feat of watching the legendary French documentary about WW2, THE SORROW AND THE PITY, in one sitting. Unlike Rod, I didn’t have the option of watching it in one sitting (and I didn’t take along a girlfriend like Alvy Singer did either). When I saw SORROW a few years ago on TCM, it was shown in the two-hour-or-so foreign-film-of-the-week slot and thus in its two segments a week apart — “The Collapse” and “The Choice,” a division made by Ophuls himself for the film’s theatrical release years earlier. And ironically, Rod reminded me of the film the same day I posted on BLACK BOOK, which, though a fiction film, covers some of the same territory. The nut of what Rod wrote:
The most unsettling thing about the film, though, is not the examples of villainy or heroism, but how most people simply made their peace with tyranny … What you get from the film, which is mostly interviews with a variety of people who had been involved with the drama of the time (most of them inhabitants of the French city Clermont-Ferrand) is a sense of how difficult it would have been to have done the right thing. To be sure, the film does not excuse the collaborators. But it does reveal them to be human, all too human.
As Rod says, SORROW is not an easy film to sit through (and not because of its length or because of “Holocaust porn,” which is absent). But unlike him, I wasn’t terribly impressed by it. Or rather don’t consider the film a masterpiece — which equally “not impressed by it,” considering its reputation.
SORROW is obviously as morally fraught as Rod says, particularly for those like us who generally identify, in some sense, with “the right.” And I agree that easily the most interesting person Marcel Ophuls interviews was the fascist-sympathizing Christian de la Maziere (there’s a lengthy clip at Rod’s site), who eventually joined the Waffen SS and is quite quietly eloquent on the why’s — namely the extreme political context not simply of the conquest, but the decade prior. Though I insist that simple or direct comparisons between the post-1946 and the pre-1946 right and between the Continental and the Anglo-American right are dubious in the extreme — I have more natural sympathy for him than I would a Communist. But de la Maziere seemed to have matured in a way that stands for how postwar politics itself did. Still, I remember being a bit annoyed that Ophuls made great sport out of a Vichy official saying Germany was preferable to Bolshevism, but never asked the at least two Communists what they were doing in the whole year between the fall of France and Hitler’s invasion of the Stalin’s USSR, before the bourgeois, imperialist war to fill the coffers of British bankers became The Great Patriotic War.
But I also remember the British homosexual who parachuted into France, in part he says, to prove his courage and because with no family, he had nothing to lose (his story, which involved taking a German soldier as his lover, sounds worthy of a film of its own). And the couple of farmers who joined the Resistance and got captured, but refused to take revenge against their betrayers (whom they said they knew) after the war — “what would be the point,” they say. And the French woman who had her head shaved. And the two German soldiers — the film actually begins with a wedding in West Germany where a man stationed with the Wehrmacht in Clermont-Ferrand is marrying off his daughter and has a son in a West German military uniform.
So there’s definitely an interesting cast of characters here. My problem was that the film seemed a bit pedestrian in its style and presentation. My memory is several years old, but I remember it being mostly talking heads and there not being much of a structure or logical through-thread. It generally followed chronology, but not in a way that was really clear to me. For example, to cite a detail tickled by what Rod wrote, I remember having to look up the postwar fate of Marshal Petain, which Ophuls alluded to late in the film, asking Sir Anthony Eden to comment on whether it was too harsh (Eden demurred, saying that Britain never was conquered, so it’s not a Briton’s place to pass judgment).
In other words, the film just seemed to be a collection of footage more than a film and thus became a bit tiring to watch, and would have been even at two hours. I always felt like I was trying to make sense of “what next” and “why this, now.” We hear at about the 180- or 200-minute mark that Clermont-Ferrand was liberated and go into some of the reprisals, against the Germans and collaborators, and I was asking myself — “how? by whom? with or without a fight? when during the broader war? … actually where the heck IS Clermont-Ferrand??” And the Maurice Chevalier bit at the end struck me as just … bizarre, both in its point (Ophuls’s point, that is, if any) and its pictorial quality. I realize that Ophuls was making the film for a French audience for whom the broadest outlines of history was universal knowledge, but … well … I’m me. (And also, one claim commonly made about the film was its groundbreaking muckraking and demythologizing, which rather suggests that some of this knowledge wasn’t so universal.)
Photos from Kevin Lee of Shooting Down Pictures (his review of SORROW here).
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