Village Idiots, Then & Now
Unseen in the United States since 1987, and never seen here before in a completely subtitled print, Marcel Ophuls's great documentary The Sorrow and the Pity is being re-released by Milestone Film. I shouldn't have to say more; your copy of The Nation should now be on the floor, and you should be heading toward the nearest theater showing the film. (In New York City, that would be Film Forum, May 12-25.) But thirteen years is a long time in the movie world, and twenty-nine (the number of years since the premiere) is an eternity. I will intrude to explain this much:
Ophuls made the film, a "chronicle of a French city under the Occupation," in the wake of May 1968. The conservative, established powers of French state and society, under the leadership of de Gaulle's party, had just reasserted themselves, basing their moral authority, as always, on the myth of Gaullist heroism during the Occupation. The response of Ophuls and his fellow filmmakers was to secure financing from Swiss and German television--French television declined to back the project--and explode the myth, by taking a thorough look at resistance and collaboration during World War II.
The Sorrow and the Pity was therefore a portrait of present-day France, as much as it was an investigation of historic events. This aspect of the film, its contemporaneity, has now been lost to us. We cannot respond as did people in 1971, when the word dropped that then-President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing had been a self-deluded acolyte of Marshal Pétain. Nor can we experience the exultation or outrage of audiences back then, when they heard Denis Rake--a former British agent in occupied France--explain almost unwillingly that workers and Communists had given tremendous support to the Resistance, but that the bourgeoisie had been, well, apathetic.
That much is lost. What remains is a grand, astonishingly comprehensive document, recorded with unfailing persistence and intelligence. Ophuls detailed the full range of French responses to Nazism, as experienced primarily by people in the town of Clermont-Ferrand. That was the first, and most invaluable, level of his achievement. Nobody else managed to get all these characters on camera.
At the top were figures such as former Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France, former British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, Resistance leader (and Libération publisher) Emmanuel D'Astier de la Vigerie and Christian de la Mazière, an aristocrat who fought with the Nazis in the Charlemagne Division and later recalled how much fun Paris had been during the Occupation. Those at the bottom included Resistance fighters (and farmers) Alexis and Louis Grave, high school teachers Danton and Dionnet (who recalled doing nothing when a fellow teacher, a Jew, was dismissed) and movie theater owner Pierre le Calvez, who was still upset, when interviewed, that German troops had been attacked on their way to his show.
The Sorrow and the Pity brings you all these people; and it also brings you the newsreels of the period. The film is full of old footage; and one shock that hasn't faded is Ophuls's use of the Nazis' propaganda. He kept finding small, damning particles of truth within their structure of lies. In the context of a film, what could be more awful than the revelation that Nazi "documentarians," to even a slight degree, were right?
There is still more, of course--not least of which is the framing interview, shot with terrible irony at a wedding banquet, where the paterfamilias was a plump and happy former Nazi. I leave you with that image, and with the renewed urging to watch The Sorrow and the Pity. It runs 270 minutes, and you need to see them all.