Memory and Style: The Threads of a Collective Experience in Marcel Ophuls’ ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’

The Sorrow and the Pity 1969 Documentary - Film Essay

“If you think we are going to show that bastard’s film again, you’re very much mistaken.” — An Official from the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française Referring to Marcel Ophüls’ 1967 film Munich or Peace for a Hundred Years

For a decade, the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (ORTF) was the sole organization responsible for state-run television and radio in France, before being dissolved in 1975. Following its demise, one of the seven media organisations formed was FR3 or France Régions 3, the first French television channel to show Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow and the Pity 10 years after its domestic 1971 premiere in Paris. Having initially been commissioned for French television, the film was dropped by the studio, exiling it to cinemas and the international film market. The contemptuous ORTF official responsible for this essay’s opening quotation was, according to Ophüls, responding to a request by French journalists to rebroadcast Munich or Peace for a Hundred Years, another made-for-television documentary, after the success of The Sorrow and the Pity in Paris. Not only had Ophüls angered his fellow countrymen, but he had angered the people with the power to ban his films from French television screens.

The Sorrow and the Pity scrutinized the then seemingly fabled history of French resistance and collaboration during the Nazi occupation of France from 1940 to 1944. Ophüls used various interviews and archive footage to pull at the threads of a historical event so sorrowful and complex that basic narratives were the only way its participants and the world could understand it. But the reasons for the film’s passionate detractors are so diverse that it would be a mistake to reduce them to the defensive instincts of patriots wanting to preserve a useful narrative. Like the French people who survived by any means during the occupation, everyone had their reasons to disapprove of Ophüls’ film. It was not that The Sorrow and the Pity would dismantle France’s collective psyche singlehandedly, but that it was an affront to many who believed they understood their people better.

In his 1972 piece for Commentary, Stanley Hoffmann — a Vienna-born political scientist — complimented The Sorrow and the Pity and Ophüls’ intentions. He stated that he had wished the film (which is approximately four hours and 15 minutes) had been “twice or three times as long, or a series,” because he believed “whole chunks of history are missing.” Born almost exactly a year apart, Hoffmann and Ophüls were 11 and 12, respectively, when the armistice with Germany was signed in June 1940, forcing these two Jewish families onto different paths. By 1941, Ophüls had made it to America, while Hoffmann remained in France for the rest of the period, hiding within “Gestapo-infested” cities and the countryside. Hoffmann believed that The Sorrow and the Pity overemphasizes the worst of the French people during the occupation. When his French history teacher dried the tears from Hoffmann’s eyes after his friend was deported, or acquired false papers for him and his mother, it was this teacher who “wiped out all the bad moments, and the humiliations, and the terrors… it was this man who was representative of his nation.”

After The Sorrow and the Pity was finally shown on French television screens in 1981, FR3 felt it was necessary to hold a televised debate a couple nights later, which included Ophüls, an audience of school students and two historians, Henri Amouroux and Alain Guérin. Amouroux explodes in a flash of fury after a particularly contentious scene is shown from Ophüls’ film: Marshal Pétain addressing a crowd of French supporters who are making the Nazi salute. He claims that the men doing this were in fact WWI veterans, and that their raised arms were actually apolitical gestures towards Pétain, a WWI general who, even among some of his critics, was respected for his military leadership. Amouroux and Hoffmann’s divergent criticisms of The Sorrow and the Pity reveal this diversity of opinion while coming from the same feeling of defensiveness. In Hoffmann’s case, it’s a reminder of the real kindness in people, easily forgotten within the context of Vichy France and its crimes.

The Sorrow and the Pity 1969 Documentary - Film Essay

The Sorrow and the Pity is surgical and functional, yet unquestionably a reflection of the imagination of an artist. The collected material, from the interviews to the archive footage, present the facts and people’s impressions of the occupation, while Ophüls simultaneously communicates his own moral and personal judgements through his film style, including his cigarette-assisted interview technique. The director’s style of filmmaking is a vehicle for the hundreds of individual stories he uses to create an arguably flawed but cinematic telling of history. But Ophüls’ resume is also a testimony to film’s superior ability to let the people speak, however they might be edited later. In that sense, as Jean-Luc Godard has suggested, Ophüls is one of cinema’s great historians.

The interviews in The Sorrow and the Pity are conducted under the influence of contemporaries Chris Marker and Jean Rouch, who began the first half of the decade (Ophüls began filming in 1969) interviewing their compatriots with similar frankness. As dreaded as the term cinéma vérité may be, it’s difficult to avoid when describing components of Ophüls’ style — for example, when he speaks to the son-in-law of Pierre Laval, taking his camera on a tour of Laval’s hometown. As a prominent leader in the Vichy regime, including as the head of government from 1942-1944, Laval was sentenced to death by firing squad after the liberation. The son, René de Chambrun, is desperate to defend his father-in-law’s legacy.

I can only imagine Ophüls’ dry amusement as Chambrun leads him and his film crew around Châteldon, asking the locals, as if they’d been coached, to give their opinions on Laval. One man innocently says that he was one of the lucky ones: he had been taken prisoner by the Germans, but Laval secured his release. The worry on Chambrun’s face is pitiful — the suggestion that anyone had been unlucky, in the same breath as his father-in-law, was undesirable. However, the Vichy regime’s deportation of Jews to Germany, and Laval’s involvement in those policies, are the questions that Ophüls is interested in asking his subject. Chambrun quotes a statistic which states that the Jews in France had an exponentially higher survival rate than all other occupied countries. But Ophüls clarifies that this statistic refers to “the French Jews who had not lost their citizenship.” Of the Jews who didn’t have French citizenship, including those who had had it stripped from them, the survival rate was consistent with other countries. Either because of his ignorance regarding this statistical distinction or because he thought he could mislead Ophüls, Chambrun’s face, thankfully in closeup, is childlike, mouth hanging, as if he can sense his father-in-law’s disapproval.

But it was not enough for Ophüls to challenge Chambrun in person. Common to the director’s essayistic tendencies is pitting two or three different and completely separate interviewees against each other, sometimes even cutting between individual sentences. After Chambrun’s weak defence of Vichy France’s Jewish policy, the author and biologist Claude Levy states the following: “I think that discussing statistics in such a situation is impossible. The fact that the French government agreed to turn in French nationals… proves that the government wasn’t worthy of its country.” Levy describes how it was Laval’s decision, citing specific documents which Ophüls presents to the viewer, to deport 4,051 children, all of whom Levy says were gassed. Soon afterwards Chambrun gives his unwitting reply: “My father was always against oppression!”

The Sorrow and the Pity 1969 Documentary - Film Essay

Ophüls used this technique most poetically in The Memory of Justice (1976), having a patriotic widow of a Vietnam veteran and a staunch critic of the Vietnam war argue back and forth. The emotion here, on both sides, is untainted by the animosity that would’ve tarnished any real-life discussion between two such people. Their words are at the mercy of Ophüls’ edit, and there will be a great many details absent to the viewer, both in the footage that is omitted and by what is lost when whole exchanges are cut into pieces. Ophüls is always present: during these moments, there are not only two but three people talking over each other.

As much as Ophüls is an essayist or historian, he is an entertainer akin to the epic filmmakers of Old Hollywood. The director’s productions move like tsunamis, sweeping and unstoppable stories that are moment by moment unfailingly exciting. Even in the interviews where war, occupation and genocide are the backdrop, Ophüls understands why his subjects might laugh when telling stories that start and end with despair. He understands that sometimes it’s easier to laugh, that these stories are just as important to his film. Other times, however, there really is something funny going on. One subject in The Sorrow and the Pity, relished by many people who have written about the film, is Pierre Mendès France (PMF), the left-wing politician who was falsely charged with desertion and imprisoned by the Vichy government after the French surrender. (I’ve used this part of his life as a descriptor to provide context for the following anecdote. Other aspects of his career are equally if not more noteworthy.)

PMF escaped from prison in 1941 and made his way to Britain where he joined the Free French, Charles de Gaulle’s exiled resistance government based in London. This is a story in itself worth four hours and fifteen minutes of film. When PMF talks with Ophüls about his escape, he says that while atop the prison walls, knowing he had little time, he heard a sound in the semi darkness of a young man and woman under a nearby tree. “You can imagine what they were discussing,” he says. “He knew what he wanted, but she hadn’t decided yet.” There PMF waited “an eternity” until finally the woman said yes and they left. “And let me assure you,” PMF continues, “I was even happier than he was… love, fate and escape eventually won the day.”

Being a Jew, PMF’s imprisonment loosely recalls the infamous Dreyfus affair. Ophüls does not dedicate a single section to the Jewish experience of Vichy France, but it beats throughout The Sorrow and the Pity like an ever-present and persistent issue. This includes PMF’s own accounts of discrimination, the downplaying by some of the scale of deportations and executions, throwaway comments or embarrassing evidence which Ophüls has handily prepared for the interview.

The Sorrow and the Pity 1969 Documentary - Film Essay

Regarding this issue, a famous example from The Sorrow and the Pity is an interview with a lowly shopkeeper. Ophüls questions the man about a newspaper advertisement from the occupation, in which the interviewee emphasizes that he is not Jewish. He says that people believed he was Jewish because of his name, which was a dangerous situation to be in following the anti-Jewish legislation of 1940. The shopkeeper isn’t a sophisticated man; his answer is awkward, and he is clearly embarrassed, as much so as Laval’s son-in-law. I doubt Ophüls’ intention was to humiliate the shopkeeper in the same way as the son-in-law, given the contrast in each man’s status and actions. But as an indication of the antisemitism prevalent in the French population at the time, it’s one of many crucial confrontations.

In the aforementioned Commentary piece, Hoffman understands Ophüls’ anger: “France is Marcel Ophüls’ country: how well he knows her ways, her landscapes, the tone of people’s conversations, the language of glances and gestures peculiar to her folk… But, obviously, his country deeply hurt him, as a child, in 1940. The Sorrow and the Pity is partly an exploration of the wound.” Just as Ophüls used his film style to persuade the viewer (and France) of his understanding of the occupation, a majority of his interviewees are up to the same thing. But Ophüls’ film also drags the viewer into the conversation and involves them in the course of making his judgement. For as long as The Sorrow and the Pity is available to watch, the jury will forever be unrestrained by generation and size. Of course collating personal accounts is only one way of exploring the past, but through the film it gives the viewer the freedom to analyze the subjects’ expressions and tics, like the twitch in a German captain’s eye suggesting that he is not being entirely candid.

Watching people talk is the divine pleasure of Ophüls’ films. The people are generally notable, and the stories are always interesting. But even those whose voices are dull and who give their interview reservedly, somehow when spliced together with everything else, the film’s momentum consumes and assimilates them. Though obviously the subjects used to talking are the easiest ones to enjoy. Two men in particular, who during the occupation survived on either end of the political spectrum, provide a number of the simultaneously political and human accounts that swell The Sorrow and the Pity’s cinematic power.

The Sorrow and the Pity 1969 Documentary - Film Essay

Christian de la Mazière, described as an ex-fascist, had been a member of a French division of the Waffen-SS. Fifteen years his elder was Émile Coulaudon, or Colonel Gaspard, one of the leaders of the French Resistance in Auvergne. Both men give their reasons for joining the war. De la Mazière describes how the strength of the German army, including the design of their uniforms, had a large impact on him. Ophüls must’ve felt, considering the substantial amount of screen time that de la Mazière is given, that this man’s account was, at least on the surface, an honest one. Not many would have admitted that there were a lot of French people in Paris who thrived under occupation (“It was a wild time”), exactly the kind of information Ophüls wanted to discuss. There are no dramatics in how de la Mazière speaks, but knowing his role in Vichy France, I wonder what he’d hoped to portray by appearing in The Sorrow and the Pity, especially as he finds himself, in plain language, explaining why fascism appealed to him as a young man. De la Mazière’s bald honesty expresses hints of remorse, though it can sometimes come across as calculated. And this mode is always more flattering than outright denial of what went on and what you knew.

Colonel Gaspard’s style, on the other hand, is stereotypically that of a proud leader trying to summon your respect for his part in the Resistance, wagging his finger across the table and modulating his voice accordingly. A majority of his screen time takes place in a single dining room, surrounded by other ex-Resistance fighters. Either it was a circumstance of filming or Ophüls knew this setting would be perfect for Colonel Gaspard, not only a camera but an entire room as his audience. The interviewee explains at the beginning of The Sorrow and the Pity the reason why he joined the Resistance: he was tired of going to restaurants and being told that the German soldiers would be served the remaining steaks and not him. “That steak came from our cows in Auvergne.” He explains that this is what he tells people when asked why he risked death or capture fighting in the Resistance. It’s a reflection of Colonel Gaspard’s pride and his theatricality. The question is whether the meaning and context behind this account, rather than the account itself, is really what inspired him. Perhaps the story is just too good not to tell.

Richard Vinen’s book The Unfree French spends an entire chapter on food and the food economy in Vichy France. He argues that while food shortages were not as severe as in other parts of Europe, German interference with France’s food supply, as well as the inevitable consequences of war, had a cultural and political effect on its people. “The French talked about food obsessively.” Considering I find Colonel Gaspard’s scene one of the most memorable in The Sorrow and the Pity, maybe I do prefer his style. But look at the manner and faces of the other men surrounding him. Some are shy, while others seem genuinely traumatized, where anger more than pride animates them. Close to the end of the film, one of the ex-Resistance fighters, Max Menut, describes the torture and murder of his wife by the Germans. “It was one of the executioners himself who told me that he shoved a broomstick up her vagina.” Before Menut’s account, Ophüls pillows the cut with a shot of a street sign:


Marinette Menut

1914 – 1944

Even if The Sorrow and the Pity was 90 minutes long, each person interviewed would still be worth infinite words. The bumbling teachers who misremember whether or not they noticed their students were disappearing; PMF’s frank though forgiving opinion of his compatriots; the former Wehrmacht captain who insists that the only reason why former Nazi soldiers refuse to wear their medals now is because they didn’t actually fight and have none; the beautician who claims she didn’t deserve to have been imprisoned by Resistance members for “denouncing a captain”; the men who admit that their involvement in the Resistance was bad for a person’s reputation, being labelled “bandits,” “terrorists” or “profiteers”; the man among them whose face drops and eyes sadden when Ophüls asks if he killed any Germans.

“It’s not my place to judge whether or not people’s anger was justified. We [the English] haven’t been through it, so we cannot say.” This is Anthony Eden’s remark when Ophüls asks him whether he thinks Marshal Pétain’s conviction of treason after the liberation was justified. And it’s the concluding point of The Sorrow and the Pity. It’s an Englishman who states this position, but Ophüls wants all people to take on its profound meaning, especially the French. The right to judge is a privilege. The leaders of such regimes are fair game, but the people they lead present a more complicated problem. This is one of the main issues the students in the 1981 FR3 debate cannot seem to agree on either.

Ophüls was interviewed by The New York Times in 2000 for the first American screening of the undubbed version of The Sorrow and the Pity. Thirty years, five films and an Oscar later,  his opinion had hardly changed. “Many people in France still think it [the film] gives a ‘message’ about how the French behaved. This would be pompous, stupid and prosecutorial — to make a statement about a country that has been defeated and had to live under these conditions for four years. In times of great crisis, we make decisions of life and death. It’s a lot to ask people to become heroes.”

Mark Seneviratne (@sene_mark) is a data analyst and writer based in Manchester, UK. He has published a short story in Not One of Us and numerous essays on film for Vague Visages, Film Inquiry and The State of the Arts.