What to Stream: The Sorrow and the Pity, a Historical Documentary That Transformed Frances National Identity – The New Yorker

Posted By on July 14, 2022

All films relate to their place and time, but some are nearly incomprehensible out of context. Thats the case with Marcel Ophulss great 1969 documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, even though its story is well known. The two-part, four-hour film, which is streaming on OVID in a new restoration and is also available on Milestone and Kanopy, is about the Second World War in France, focussed on life in the small city of Clermont-Ferrand, in the center of the country. It covers the German invasion and the Occupation of France; the formation of the Vichy regime, just twenty-nine miles from Clermont, under Marshal Philippe Ptain; the rise of the French Resistance; and the Liberation in 1944 and its aftermath. What has made those facts familiar is, in significant measure, the film itself: its a work of history that changed the course of history, and its impact on its moment is exemplified in the opposition that it faced and ultimately overcame.

In The Sorrow and the Pity, Ophulsmaking his first feature-length documentarytells a vast and intricate story in a form that now seems classical, even hackneyed. Its composed mainly of interviews with a wide-ranging group of participants and witnesses to the events. Ophuls cuts the material into interview bites and assembles them to develop the storys arc; the interviews are punctuated with illustrative archival footage. As familiar as the format is now, when Ophuls made The Sorrow and the Pity, few documentaries of note were constructed in this way. Extended on-camera interviews depended on portable synch-sound equipment that was developed only in the late nineteen-fifties, resulting in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morins Chronicle of a Summer (the film for which Morin coined the term cinma-vrit), Robert Drews Primary, and such successors as the Maysles brothers Salesman and Frederick Wisemans Hospital.

Unlike those modern masterworks, however, The Sorrow and the Pity is neither immersive nor reflexive. Instead, its originality is found in its very simplicityits deceptive modesty. Though Ophuls and his co-writer, Andr Harris, are heard, sometimes even seen, in discussion with the interview subjects, the movie doesnt emphasize these interactions or their centrality to the onscreen action. Rather, their intervention is at its most emphatic, and most conspicuous, in the editing of the large body of interview footage (between fifty and sixty hours worth, according to Ophuls) into a taut, coherent narrative. Ophuls and Harris rarely challenge the subjects assumptions or assertions; putting their interviewees at ease, they collect a varied and copious array of accounts and perspectives. This very varietyits panoramic scope, its complexity, its conflicting points of viewis the films raison dtre.

The interviews feature a remarkable range of participants, filmed on location (in their homes or workplaces, or in public, or at a cannily chosen site of significance) and suggesting a cross-section of French society during the war: a sampling of classes, ideologies, and wartime activities that renders the individual speakers and their experiences both singular and exemplary. (Only the dearth of women as onscreen subjects diminishes the films representative authority.) The Sorrow and the Pity includes Resistance fighters from modest circumstanceswhether farmers or working peopleas well as high-ranking politicians and even aristocrats who were motivated by patriotism, indignation, or ideology. The film similarly spotlights collaborators from the cosseted haute bourgeoisie, along with middle-class functionaries and small-business owners who were pressured into coperation with the occupiers. Theres even an unrepentant defender of Vichy (and the son-in-law of one of its officials) who takes grotesque pains to minimize the effects of the Holocaust on Jews in France and of the French governments part in it. Ophuls also puts the daily life of the Occupation and the Resistance into an international political context, by way of interviews with British politicians and officers, German officials (including a translator for Hitler), and the French politician Pierre Mends France, who worked with the Free French government-in-exile of Charles de Gaulle. (Along with his tale of anti-Semitic persecution under Vichy and his escape from France, Mends France offers warnings about the enduring and unquenched temptations of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.)

Ophulss editorial storytelling has a deft brilliance that moves imperceptibly between the personal and the general, the representative and the distinctive. Theres a mighty, quasi-literary power to the interviews: the story of a Clermont shopkeeper named Klein, who took pains to avoid being misidentified as Jewish (a strange anticipation of Joseph Loseys 1976 drama, Monsieur Klein); a woman whod been convicted, based on handwriting samples, of denouncing a resister to the Gestapo; and the story of a gay British spy with a German lover in Paris. We learn of the narrow escape of French politicians to Morocco en route to London and the excruciating decision of British leaders to bomb the French fleet in Mers-el-Kbir, Algeria (then a French territory), to prevent it from falling into German hands. The farmer Louis Grave, who was active in the Resistance, was denounced, arrested, and deported to Buchenwald, but, after the Liberation, he refused to seek revenge against the person who denounced him to the Gestaponor did Grave offer forgiveness. He bore the knowledge of the betrayal as if it were a form of moral revenge, superior to prosecution or violence.

This range of backgrounds, inclinations, and activities marks the frame-shattering power of Ophulss practical aesthetic. He states publicly what, in the twenty-five years that separated the film from the Liberation, had been privately understood, whether in family circles or in the halls of power, but had gone largely unexpressed. He contradicts the foundational myth of Frances postwar Fourth and Fifth Republicsnamely, that France, with the exception of some dastardly politicians and a relatively small number of collaborators, was largely a country of resistance, that the French Resistance far outweighed and outnumbered French collaborationists. For that matter, the film also presents an intellectual X-ray of the ideological morass of anti-Semitism and anti-Communism that underlay Frances defeat by Germany and readiness to collaboratethe demonization of the democratic moderate left, the preference of many for an anti-democratic far right, the racist hatred that fuels such a bent, and the admiration for a bloodthirsty foreign dictator who fosters and abets those authoritarian sympathies. (A word to the wise.)

The Sorrow and the Pity in no way diminishes the commitment or effectiveness of Resistance fighters or their behind-the-scenes abetters and enablers. Far from debunking the Resistance, Ophuls intensifies our vision of the heroism of the resisters, precisely because their actions were exceptionalbecause they took place amid the heads-down passivity of many neighbors and the active hostility of others. Whats more, the documentary also emphasizes that active sympathizers to the Resistance, who didnt bear arms but aided it merely by knowing about itby knowing that their neighbors were engaged in partisan combat and saying nothingwere also heroic. The potential price of resistancearrest, torture, execution, deportation to concentration campsshrieks through the interviews, too, highlighting the courage of resisters while also suggesting empathy with those who merely went about their business. One interviewee, the British politician Anthony Eden, serves as something like Ophulss spokesperson, reserving his judgment upon the people of France under Vichy by asserting that those who havent experienced the horror of an occupation by a foreign power have no right to pronounce upon those who did.

In its matter-of-factness, the film is nonetheless a work of outrage, less at individuals, even the most contemptible on view, than at France as a wholepostwar France and its self-silencing, self-exonerating political mythology. Theres something strangely, implicitly meta about The Sorrow and the Pity: its main story is that France has been telling itself a story. Yet that myth, of a nation of resisters, isnt explicitly unfolded in the film any more than, say, the myth of Manifest Destiny is unfolded in the greatest Hollywood Westerns; its there as the unchallenged and ambient background to the action, the underlying idea on which the action depends. In TheSorrowand the Pity, that action is the talk that reveals the fabrication of that founding myth. The entirety of the movie is, in effect, a counter-storyi.e., the complex and intractable truth, which had little place in French public life or in the sense of French identity. Its as if all of France were implicated as the documentarys virtual reverse angleits challenging, defiant closeup.

Ophuls, who was born in 1927, was a participant in the Events of May, 1968. He, along with his films producers, Harris and Alain de Sedouy, were working for French television at the time and went on strike, which cost them their jobs and their programs. For all the political demands of students and other activists at the time, the crucial focus of May was a cultural shift: a breaking-down of ossified mores, of the out-of-touch and out-of-synch barrier between Frances public culture and its residents lives.

Yet the film, in attempting to break the silence on the realities of Vichy France, was subjected to a silencing. The Sorrow and the Pity premired in West Germany in 1969, but, although intended for French television (which was then entirely state-run), it was rejected for broadcast by means of a subterfuge that was itself a silencing. The filmmakers held private screenings, but televisions bureaucratic decision-makers simply never attended them, claiming that they had no time to consider such a long filmas if, in trying to avoid the likely controversy of rejecting the film on its merits, they were ignoring it in the hope that it would go away. Instead, the movie received a very limited theatrical release, and wasnt shown on French television until October, 1981five months after Franois Mitterrand, a Socialist, was elected President of France. Once it did air, according to Le Monde, it wasnt the political and sociological event that the channels had anticipated. This ostensible failure was a mark of the films success: in its relatively clandestine way, it had already done its epochal job. The silence was broken; the revelations had become common knowledge.

Go here to see the original:

What to Stream: The Sorrow and the Pity, a Historical Documentary That Transformed Frances National Identity - The New Yorker

Related Posts


Comments are closed.

matomo tracker