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Savant Review:

The SORROW and the PITY

The Sorrow and the Pity
Image Entertainment
1971 / B&W / 1:37 / 251 (265?) m. / Chagrin et la pitié, Le
Cinematography André Gazut and Jurgen Thieme
Production Designer
Film Editor Claude Vajda
Writing credits André Harris and Marcel Ophuls
Directed by Marcel Ophuls

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Woody Allen 'presents' this 2000 release of what is probably one of the top five documentaries of all time, proving he was not kidding when his character Alvy Singer praised it to high heaven in Annie Hall.  It turns out to be a fast 4 hours +, if you break it into its two parts (The Collapse, The Choice) and watch it over two nights.  Some previous knowledge of WW2 is rather helpful, as the politics of France before and during the war is no simple subject.  Savant has done a tidy amount of research on the German Occupation of Paris but could have used more; The Sorrow and the Pity will continue to be great because it is a definitive document of an agonizing time, not because it simplifies complex issues or tries to 'entertain' an audience.


A documentary chronicle in two feature-length parts, of the German occupation of France as seen through the eyes of the participants. It claims to focus on the small town (near the hated Vichy collaborationist capital) Clermont-Ferrand, but substantial parts of the show focus on events in Paris and the collaboration capital, Vichy. Interviews are taken with French, English, and German participants in the events; most are candid but a few seem to be trying hard to put a positive spin on their sometimes questionable attitudes and behaviors. The singer (and accused collaborator) Maurice Chevalier provides infrequent 'soundtrack' songs, and is used as an ironic capper to this long, but engrossing examination of the human character under political stress.

Wasting no time with style or elegance, Marcel Ophuls' docu camera records the testimony of several dozen first-person participants of the Occupation years, and spends enough time with each interviewee for us to decide for ourselves to what extent they are telling the truth, or embellishing the facts.  Are they avoiding unpleasant subjects from denial of guilt, or knowing culpability?

There aren't any heroes per se.  The Resistance Leader acknowledges that he was barely in control of anything and doubted the wisdom of those who followed him.  The farmer socialists who did the fighting admit that instead of being treated like heroes after the war, they felt cast out as unstable roughnecks.  There are several distasteful mentions of the fact that Frenchwomen went with German soldiers, but few speakers list their own petty crimes of collaboration.   Some speakers have a handle on the gravity of the subject, and others do not.  A dignified lady states with pride that her patriotic women's league gathered money to plant rose bushes on the Maginot line to pretty-up the front lines for the soldier.  An English masterspy who happened to be a homosexual calmly tells the astonishing story of how he worked in a gay club in Paris and had a conflict of conscience from concealing his identity from his German officer boyfriend!  A Frenchman explains in full detail how he and his friends supported the collaboration to the extent of joining a German SS battalion and fighting on the Russian front: his 'confession' seems both an expiation of guilt and a personal attempt to say that decent people made reasonable decisions, that only now after the war can be seen as traitorous.  Lord Avon Anthony Eden makes a good case for not holding the collaborators too strictly to account for their 'crimes,' explaining that in a civil-war kind of situation, there's often no choice that can be made that doesn't betray someone.

The closest the film comes to a standard villain is in the person of a properly plump German businessman, who takes time out at a family wedding (in front of the bride and groom) to state that the resisting Frenchmen were not considered partisans (irregular soldiers, to be accorded military rights) because they went about their 'crimes of assassination' without wearing armbands so they could be identified on sight.  He puffs a cigar and still proudly wears small insignia badges of his army service, badges issued by the Nazis.

It's not the Germans that Ophuls and co. wish to indict, but their own countrymen, a brave and thankless mission that can't possibly have earned them many accolades in France.  In the land of French liberty, patriotism goes hand in hand with the sweeping of bad memories under the carpet, even more so than here in the states  1  Of the combatant Allies in WW2, France has a perfectly rotten record.  Norway and Denmark and Holland suffered for openly opposing the Germans, and large organizations did what they could to protect large numbers of Jews.  In France (the only vanquished nation to collaborate, i.e., help the Germans by running the conquered country for them) the Vichy government practically volunteered to round up Jews.  Apparently the French were statistically far more anti-Semitic than the Germans; it took Hitler a decade to install repressions in Germany, whereas mass roundups of Jews in Paris were going strong only a year after the country fell in 1940.

"I'm not political" is heard more than once by people who still (in 1970 or so) declare their loyalty to the collaboration government of Laval and Marechal Petain.  The message here is loud and clear, that if we are to hold these people 'responsible' for their poitical attitudes, mistakes, and crimes, then we have to be ready to be held personally accountable for the policies of the governments we support, when we passively pretend we're, "not political."   Savant knows people who don't vote because the courts select jurors from registered voters, and they think they can avoid the inconvenience of jury duty that way.  Sheesh.

Ophuls doesn't use his camera to make his interviewees look guilty or to score zinger points - some of the more shocking things that are said can almost slip by if one is not paying attention.   For a documentarian who clearly is opening old wounds (I'm sure Frenchmen still argue the Dreyfuss case) he is uncommonly fair.  And he has the screen time to do the job.  Those arguing that the picture is just too long might do well to ponder the fact that the new James Bond Special editions feature an average of five hours of talk - about a single frivolous movie!  Taking the proper screen time to lay down these historically priceless reminiscences of one of the 20th Century's most tragic chapters, is not an indulgence.

Image Entertainment's DVD of The Sorrow and the Pity is a fine disc, with sound and picture quality the equal or better than the original prints.  It has no extras, which is a shame, but the fact that it is out there at all cannot be sniffed at.  A bibiliography would help, but Savant can vouch that any good-sized library has a long shelf of books on the subject for those who would like to be better acquainted with the facts.  In this case it would help, as the political fine points of issues are not presented.  Talk about the 'occupied' and 'unoccupied' zones, and the tangle of opinions about the French Navy's being attacked by the British are impossible to understand without more information.  Hopefully, the kind of people who can read forever about subjects like the American Civil War, will be inspired to dig into this absorbing subject.

Maurice Chevalier is featured prominently in the documentary.  He's the grinning boulevardier singer, who with most entertainers in Paris, weathered the occupation living a high life with the German occupiers, while the non - V.I.P. population lost an average of 25 pounds each due to malnutrition.  Some of his songs provide infrequent background for archival footage.  The picture ends with a newsreel of him, grinning like a baby, claiming he was not a collaborator.  The charges against him that he was one were false, you see, because he never went to Germany to perform singing engagements for the Nazis, not once!  He did go to sing for French P.O.W.'s in their camps, and that was it!  Honest, you can believe Maurice!  He's just a singing, non-political carefee guy!  After all the sincere testimony from citizens, important and humble, Chevalier's image-mending comes off as particularly heinous.  This must be the 'pretty, Guilty world' that Orson Welles spoke of in The Lady from Shanghai.   Chevalier then goes on to associate himself with the Americans, singing his debut song from Paramount on Parade (1930), which has the the jaunty lyric, "I'll be making Rain - bows, sweeping the clouds away.'  The Sorrow and the Pity make a better case for dragging those clouds back and taking a good hard look at them.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Sorrow and the Pity rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: American Trailer
Packaging: Double Keep case
Reviewed: April 29, 2001


1. The papers right now are working over the issue of Vietnam atrocities again, because a prominent Congressman has admitted to having been present when a number of Viet civilians were killed, "Because we thought they were V.C."  In typical Bush-ian dissemblance, the article quotes incompatible testimony claiming that women and children were massacred in cold blood, but nobody is upset.  Today's LA Times has an article entitled something like "War Memories Are Wounds That Veterans Carry All Their Life," thereby doing the usual job of switching sympathies from Victim to Wrongdoer, so that newspaper readers aren't unduly disturbed by reality.

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