[box cover]

The Sorrow and the Pity

Image Entertainment

Starring Pierre Mendes-France, Anthony Eden,
and Alexis and Louis Grave

Written and directed by Marcel Ophuls


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Review by D. K. Holm                    


There are several reasons why The Sorrow and the Pity is one of the greatest documentaries of all time. First, director Marcel Ophuls (son of Max Ophuls) immersed himself in his material. Like Terry Zwigoff with Crumb, he thoroughly knew his subject. Second, because the film was made for television (though refused by the French networks), Ophuls gave himself enough time and latitude to deeply explore the issues he was confronting. And finally, Ophuls had a point to make. It was an unpredictable, unexpected point — that the French Resistance was not as beloved in its own country as subsequent history would have everyone believe — and Ophuls declined to adopt that false god of journalistic "objectivity" in order to make it.

The Sorrow and the Pity takes as its home base the city of Clermont-Ferrand, lodged almost in the center of France. Clermont-Ferrand has an interesting relationship with the movies. Several films have been set there, including My Night at Maude's. But in this film, Ophuls is using it as a synecdoche for France's wartime attitude toward the German occupation. Though far from Paris, it was only 60-some miles from Vichy, the wartime capital of France, and it was also lodged in the region where resistance activity was most intense. The film begins with the ancient, but still farming, Grave brothers, one of whom spent time in Buchenwald for his resistance activities after he was betrayed by a neighbor. Thereafter, the film ranges from Anthony Eden, a British politician associated with Churchill, who gives the British line on the fall of France, to Pierre Mendes-France, a Jewish politician indicted for desertion and imprisoned by a kangaroo court, only to escape under somewhat comical circumstances. Other moving tales include the British spy who parachuted into France only to fall in love with a German soldier, and the conservative French aristocrat who joined the German air force and fought with the Luftwaffe at the Russian front. There are several cinematically famous moments in this documentary, among them when interviewer Ophuls catches out two Clermont-Ferrand teachers in a denial that any of their students died in the war; yet right behind them is a memorial plaque that asserts the very truth they are trying to deny.

The Sorrow and the Pity takes a long time to lay out its points, but the film is always fascinating. And Ophuls makes you work. His documentary requires a great deal of concentration — which makes DVD presentation of it ideal. The movie is 251 minutes long, and, in its DVD debut from Image Entertainment, comes in a two-disc set. The first disc contains "Part One: The Collapse," which replays the conquest and collaboration of France. The second disc has "Part Two: The Choice," which explores the moral quandary of resistance or collaboration. Naturally, The Sorrow and the Pity stirred controversy at the time of its release. French citizens were disinclined to remember that their's was the only country to actively collaborate with the conquering German government. French television in 1969 refused to air it, and instead the film played at a small theater on the Left Bank, where the documentary proved to be a hit. It was released in America 1972, originally by Cinema 5, and now Milestone Pictures has revived it and improved the subtitles (the box says "Woody Allen Presents," though there is no other evidence of Allen's participation in this release). One of the peculiarities of the film is that all non-French speakers are translated into French out loud, with the original voice's volume turned down as the translator takes over. This is fine when the speaker is German, but English speakers are also translated into French and we have to read what they say in English subtitles. But that is a small price to pay for a film of such searing insight and moral probing.

This black-and-white film comes in a widescreen transfer (1.85:1) on two single-sided, dual-layered discs. Ophuls uses a lot of archival footage, much of it unseen since the war and much of it scratchy with bad sound; but the source-print for the actual film itself is rather scratchy and chemically stained, though that doesn't really interfere with one's appreciation of Ophuls's themes and ideas. Audio is in Dolby Digital mono, with English subtitles, which is adequate for the film's purposes. Supplements consist solely of the theatrical trailer, which, frankly fails to capture the essence of the movie or create excitement for it.

— D. K. Holm



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