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 his Annie Hall. It turns out to be a fast 4-plus 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, without simplifying complex issues or trying to 'entertain' its 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 Clermont-Ferrand near the hated collaborationist capital Vichy. But substantial parts of the show focus on events in Paris as well. Interviews are taken with French, English, and German participants in the events of the war; 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 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. Do they avoid unpleasant topics to deny their guilt?
There are no heroes per se. A Resistance Leader asserts that he was barely in control of anything and doubted the wisdom of those who followed him. The farmer socialists that 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 fraternized 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 collected money for rose bushes to pretty-up the Maginot Line for the soldiers. 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 suffered a conflict of conscience when concealing his identity from his boyfriend, a German officer. 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 testimony seems both an expiation of his guilt and a statement that decent people made honest 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 the person of a properly plump German businessman, who takes time out at a family wedding (in front of the bride and groom) to make his statement. He asserts that Frenchmen in the resistance 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. It's a brave and thankless mission that can't possibly have earned the filmmakers 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 in those countries have an enviable record for striving to protect large numbers of Jews. France is the only vanquished nation that aided the Germans by running the conquered country for them. The Vichy government to the initiative in rounding up French Jews. Apparently the French were statistically far more anti-Semitic than the Germans; it took Hitler a decade to fully install repression 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 claim to be apolitical.
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 he is uncommonly fair -- Frenchmen are surely still arguing the Dreyfuss case. And Ophuls has the screen time to do the job right. 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. It is not an indulgence to take the proper screen time to lay down these historically priceless reminiscences of one of the 20th Century's most tragic chapters.
Image Entertainment's DVD of The Sorrow and the Pity is a fine disc with sound and picture quality the equal or better than original prints. It carries no extras. In this case help would be welcome to explain specific points to viewers unaware issues like the 'occupied' and 'unoccupied' zones, and the discussion of the French Navy's being attacked by the British.
The Lady from Shanghai. Chevalier then goes on to associate himself with the Americans, singing his debut song from Paramount on Parade (1930). It has the the jaunty lyric, "I'll be making Rain - bows, sweeping the clouds away." The Sorrow and the Pity makes the case for dragging those clouds back for a closer look.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Sorrow and the Pity rates:
Supplements: American Trailer
Packaging: Double Keep case
Reviewed: April 29, 2001
1. The papers at present 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 he dissembles, "Because we thought they were V.C." The article quotes incompatible testimony claiming that women and children were massacred incold blood, but nobody is upset. Today's L.A. Times also has a 'balancing' 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, allowing newspaper readers to opt for a more comforting reality.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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