Marcel Ophuls documents Vichy France’s shameful collaboration with Nazi Germany.
To attend on succeeding days The Godfather and Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity is to leap from sprawling triviality to splendor. Ophuls’ picture is opportune—it gives reasonable ground to expect the survival of the often compromised but hitherto persistent spirit of human independence. It is a flame, not a conflagration, because not enough people will fight for it; but once in the recent past, a really determined effort was made to stifle it in circumstances and among people where it did not seem to be very ardently cherished, and yet it survived. That’s a reason for hope.
The film will also probably grow more valuable as the decades pass, because it is a stern, unsparing, but in the end compassionate record of how men and women of three countries, and of the widest possible spectrums of principle and attainment, recalled, after thirty years, a great common experience. The subtitle of the picture is Chronicle of a Town During the Occupation. The town, really a small city, is Clermont-Ferrand in the Massif Central; it was under Fascist domination, first indirectly through Vichy, then by German occupation, from 1939 to 1944. Many citizens of Clermont-Ferrand collaborated; many more merely endured; the Resistance began in the surrounding Auvergne countryside. Now Ophuls and his company of interrogators (they are all of that) persuade these survivors of Hitler’s New Europe to recall what it was like, to reveal what they did, and to judge their much younger selves across a considerable ravine of time.
The honesty is astonishing; the courage even more so—I don’t refer here particularly to the courage of the brave, though it is tonic, but of those who were weak or indifferent or worse, and who now, under the stimulus of this project, have the resolution to define themselves. The film unit travels widely. It visits a German wedding breakfast, the father of the bride, Helmuth Tausend, having been a Wehrmacht captain in Clermont-Ferrand. Herr Tausend comes off badly, though it is not at all certain that he knows it. I get the impression that he was an adequate soldier and decent man when he was intruding on France; but the years have not endowed him with sensitivity. He seems to have thought it a pleasant idea to invite the Frenchmen to the family celebration, and regale them with his memories of himself as a gallant, correct warrior. He talks far too much and no one cuts him oil; it is not merciful, but you feel it is just.
In England the crew talks to a flier who was shot down over Clermont-Ferrand (he remembers that his host got him twenty Gauloise cigarettes a day, and it wasn’t until almost the end of his stay that he found him collecting the butts from the ashtrays at night) and it talks to Anthony Eden. Churchill’s Foreign Secretary explains how events looked at the command level—why, for example, it was thought necessary to destroy a unit of the French fleet, a destruction of men and ships that still occasions incredulity in the cafes of Clermont-Ferrand. He speaks candidly of British shortcomings, but cannot be drawn into a discussion of the behavior of the French. “We were not invaded,” he says, “and we don’t know what it was like.”