The Sorrow and the Pity - DVD Re-release

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The subject matter of The Sorrow and the Pity is simple: life during the Occupation, focusing on the small city of Clermont-Ferrand. The resultant film is transcendent.

Directed by Marcel Ophuls

Reviewed by Steven Rubio

Thursday, June 7 2001, 8:40 AM


The Sorrow and the Pity is not only the greatest documentary film ever made, but also one of the greatest films of any kind. Its recent release on DVD is a reason for celebration, as this remarkable and intelligent work is once again made available to a wider audience.

The Sorrow and the Pity is, as its subtitle reminds us, a "chronicle of a French city under the Occupation," the Occupation in question being that of France by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The director, Marcel Ophuls, is the son of the famed German director Max Ophuls, who was known for the elegant camerawork of classics such as The Earrings of Madame de .... Marcel himself began making conventional movies in France in the early 60s like Banana Peel with Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Paul Belmondo, but soon moved to documentaries. The Sorrow and the Pity was his first great success; made for French television but deemed too controversial to show there, the film was released world-wide and received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature of 1971, losing to a little-remembered film about the battle between men and insects called The Hellstrom Chronicle.

The subject matter of The Sorrow and the Pity is simple: life during the Occupation, focusing on the small city of Clermont-Ferrand. The resultant film is transcendent. A straightforward description of the film seems to promise limitless boredom: more than four hours of talking-head interviews in at least three different languages, blended with old wartime footage and occasional clips from the likes of Maurice Chevalier. But Ophuls' mastery of film technique allows him to create a thinking-person's masterpiece from these seemingly mundane parts. He interviews people who experienced the Occupation (in the late 60s, when the film was being made, many of them were still alive). Some are famous "big names" of history, such as Pierre Mendes-France, imprisoned during the war, Premier of France later in life, and Sir Anthony Eden, a British prime minister in the mid-50s. But even these men are noteworthy more for their actions as "regular" folks than as statesmen, and the true "stars" of the movie are the various "common men" who tell their personal stories. The Grave brothers, for instance, local farmers who fought in the Resistance, are as far as one might get from Jean-Paul Belmondo, but their pleasure with life and their remembrances of friends and foes during the Occupation establish them as real life heroes.

Ophuls' argument here is that the Resistance wasn't nearly as widespread in France as the country would like to believe. His larger question asks what any of us might do in such a situation. The crucial underlying historic point is that France's Vichy government, collaborating with the Nazis, was morally and ethically different than other countries that were overrun by the Nazis during the war. The sad fact of collaboration makes France a different sort of history lesson, one that many Frenchmen apparently did not want to consider thirty years ago when the film was first released.

Thirty years down the road, Ophuls' methodology is as interesting as the history he tells. Merely claiming that Ophuls had an argument seems to work against the surface of his film, for he disguises his point of view, his argument, behind the reminiscing of his interview subjects. The film is a classic of humanist culture in large part because Ophuls, in giving the people the chance to say their piece, apparently puts his faith in those people (and in the audience that watches them) to impart "truth." However, the filmmaker is much cannier than this; he is not artless. The editing of the various perspectives in the movie allows the viewer to form conclusions of their own that don't always match those of the people who are doing the talking in the film. In fact, The Sorrow and the Pity makes great demands on the viewer, not just because of the film's length: Oph?ls assumes you are processing the information he's providing, and so the film gets better as it progresses, with the viewer's attention being rewarded in direct correlation with the effort you put in.

And Ophuls is himself the primary interviewer in the film; you don't often actually see him, but he's there, asking the questions, leading on his subjects and his audience, only partly hidden (visually and philosophically) from view. The movie might look easy; there are none of the showy flourishes of a Kubrick or Stone here (or of Max Ophuls, for that matter). But the viewer is advised to remember that Ophuls' guiding hand is always in the background, constructing the film's version of the truth just as the characters do in their stories.

Watching the film on DVD adds its own peculiar pleasures. The print is a good one; unlike the versions I remember from 25 years ago, which included voice-overs in English mixed in with the more traditional subtitles, this time most of the voice-overs are in French, which are then subtitled into English. As the film was originally a television documentary, it plays well on DVD. DVD viewers tend to fetishize the extras that generally come with highly-promoted releases like The Sorrow and the Pity, but here they're forced to just watch the movie: the only extra on the 2-disc set is a short preview for the film that completely fails to give any sense of the immensity of the movie or the audacious manner of its execution. This is one film that can't be reduced to 120 seconds of promo material, and also a film that doesn't need director's commentaries (since Oph?ls, as interviewer, is in many of the scenes, the commentary is effectively a part of the movie itself) or deleted scenes (251 minutes is long enough) or How It Was Made featurettes. DVD is the perfect medium for movies as they have evolved since the initial blockbusters of the mid-70s; the best DVDs are about the clever and enticing use of technology, as are many of the best (and worst) movies of the last 25 years. The Sorrow and the Pity, alas, is merely one of the greatest films in movie history. Fetish lovers should look elsewhere.

Copyright © 2001 by Steven Rubio. All rights reserved.
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