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.”
The film interpolates war footage (bombing raids, Jewish roundups, Hitler gleeful in Paris) and propaganda (excerpts from few Siiss, contrasts between the “degenerate” French and the “noble” German folk) but always it returns to Clermont-Ferrand and the present. Alexis and Louis Grave are farmers, shrewd, prosperous, caps pulled low over their foreheads and with a look of suppressed amusement on their fat faces. They were Resistance fighters and one of them was shipped to Buchenwald, having been denounced by a neighbor. “What did you think about in the camp,” he is asked. “Food,” he replies. “People who thought about anything else didn’t survive.” He grins. Then he is asked whether he ever looked up that neighbor. “What for?” he replies, and grins again. I think the Grave brothers take it as a great joke that Hitler and his collaborators should have tried to get the better of them; it has kept them in good humor ever since. Most of the men who were in the Resistance seem to have had much the same idea; one of them, asked why he joined the Maquis, says approximately, “The situation was not satisfactory.”
Enough—though I am not gutting the picture; it goes on for better than four hours and I cannot begin to cover the detail. There is Christian de la Mazière, who joined the Waffen SS, fought in Russia and will not let his inquisitor goad him into either apology or anger. I doubt that I would appreciate M. Mazière’s views even today, but I salute him. Emmanuel d’Astier d la Vigerie has a face and hands like those of Cocteau and was a founder of the “Liberation” movement. He was a black sheep anyhow, he says, so it wasn’t so hard. Marcel Verdier is a pharmacist. Like Herr Tansend, he talks a great deal; perhaps because he did so little. But he is a puzzled man, not a complacent one; how did all ,that happen around him, and he took such small notice? A surprising number of the people in Clermont-Ferrand seen to feel that way—I recall particularly two schoolteachers—not guilty, but cheated.
I must stop, but readers will experience this sane compulsion to relive the film; it is not a long picture, for all its hours—it is mesmeric. And that happens partly because of its content, partly because of its artistry. It is a masterpiece of editing, cutting back and forth from country to country, among groups and individuals, to weave a tight-grained and marvelously animated tapestry of an event that holds utterly different people in the meshes of a single experience. Pierre Mendès-France, who was jailed in Clermont-Ferrand until he went over the wall and joined the Free French in London, is in a sense the spokesman for the whole work. His wit, his intelligence, his powers of discrimination and his forbearance accept and hold together all the colors of the fabric. He is a man without illusions or despair; he does not forgive and he does not condemn. He gets on with the present, strengthened by the past, and the French are crazy not to make full use of him.
If there is a message, a theme, in the picture, my mind is not sufficiently synoptic to define it. Ophuls is driven y the hunger of a good reporter to master the facts of a most complex event and present them so that we who were not there can read it intelligently. He is neutral, with one proviso: he insists that you acknowledge the importance of the individual, every individual. It is not a matter of praise or blame, but of recognition. That is why The Sorrow and the Pity, whose dark base, after all, is set in suffering and death, is nevertheless a celebration of life.
About the English-language print—I saw the picture first in Paris and said that it could not be done; impossible to subtitle a film that contains thousands of words of conversation, and dubbing would destroy the authenticity. I was wrong. The producers use some titles, but principally they employ the “voice over” technique familiar to anyone who has heard a UN debate on television. However, these voices are chosen tactfully and with the most accurate ear for personality, to accord with the appearance and quality of the person speaking: The “match” is so excellent that you come from the theatre under the impression that by some miracle you suddenly understand the most rapid and colloquial French and German. I cannot estimate what hours of search and rehearsal went into these entirely “natural” graftings; they are a technical achievement worthy of Ophuls’ stupendous work.