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THE SORROW AND THE PITY

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Marcel Ophuls
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Slightly Letterboxed 1.37:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  Trailer
Length:  251 Minutes
Release Date:  April 24, 2001

Film ****

As a former English military officer in the film points out, no one should judge the actions individual French citizens took during the World War II German occupation.  Until one has experienced the horrors of having a foreign power take over and control one’s native soil, no one can truthfully say what his or her actions might be.

The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls’ brilliant and lengthy documentary on the subject of the occupation, presents us with many such individuals some twenty to thirty years after the fact.   The timing is such that many vivid memories are still intact, as are the bitter feelings and anger, directed more against fellow Frenchman than against the invading Nazis.

A former German officer interviewed for the film recalls how Hitler’s army had conquered Poland in two weeks’ time, and had set his sights on France to fall just as easily…yet many didn’t believe it could be done.  They recalled the valiant fighting forces of the first World War.  Hitler, on the other hand, believed that France, with her faltering class system and disorganization, would be ripe for conquest.  He was right.  The German army had occupied much of France within the span of about a month.

Most of the first part of the film deals with the act of occupation.  We see German newsreel clips proclaiming their triumphs and footage of French Marshal Petain, who tried to make a good relationship with the Nazis.  From their own lips, we hear stories of the French and how they responded.  The middle class, we are told, figured they had more to lose from fighting than with complying, making it a little more comfortable for the invading troops.  Others decided that even if they couldn’t drive out the Nazis, they could do everything possible to make their operation difficult.  These were the formative roots of the French Resistance.

The second part shows more of France’s attempts to fight against the occupation.  If the Resistance represented humanity’s best and most noble under duress, there are an equal number of stories that signify its worst.  The film minces no words in accusing those who complied with the Nazis as being deliberate assistants to the Holocaust.  I never remembered hearing about this aspect of history before, but the movie discusses how certain anti-Semites in France latched on to the German invasion as a means of fueling their misguided beliefs, and how many even helped the Germans round up and imprison Jews in concentration camps.  One tale even shows a fearful Frenchman, who wasn’t Jewish but had the last name of Klein, taking ads out in papers desperately declaring his Gentile status so that he and his family wouldn’t be arrested, nor his business burned down.  Another, more disheartening one, tells of the separation of adults from their children en route to the camps.  Apparently not sure of what to do with the trainload of children, the Germans simply had them gassed.

The film’s personal approach, telling the story of the occupation and Resistance through the words and memories of those who lived through it, make the individual tales more compelling, and sometimes a little more frightening.  There are descriptions of torture in the second half of the film that are graphic and terrifying, as the Frenchmen who feared the implications of the Resistance actually began informing on their fellow countrymen to the German army and the SS. 

There are tales of how France’s distrust of the British kept the two from initially working together to combat the onslaught of Nazism…yet there are also stories like that of Mademoiselle X, who escaped a German controlled city and managed to make it all the way to England in an open rowboat, where other escapees were joining with the British in resistance to the Germans.

Of course, these stories and images all beg modern audiences to ask of themselves:  what would we have done under similar circumstances?  In The Sorrow and the Pity, we witness the best and the worst answers that question could garner.  It’s not a pleasant thought to consider in any case.

Yet consider we must, which is the real mastery of this film.  It brings us close to those who did have to answer that question for themselves and under the most dire of situations.  We see human behavior at its most noble and its most ugly, yet, as the British officer suggests, we are compelled to withhold judgment until we have experienced the same tragic circumstances.

The film is long, but engrossing from beginning to end, with its only possible flaw being the talkiness of the interviewer (Ophuls?), who speaks in parentheticals most of the time.  The structure works best when we’re listening to the subjects, and not to him.

But that is a minor complaint in what otherwise stands as one of the greatest documentaries ever produced.  Short on style, rich in substance, The Sorrow and the Pity is an intriguing and sobering look back at a dark period in one country’s history, and rings forth with humanity at its best and worst, which is what always surfaces under such duress.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Marcel Ophuls is, appropriately enough, the son of filmmaker Max Ophuls, a Viennese expatriate who had fled Europe to avoid the fascist onslaught.

Video **

The Sorrow and the Pity is, understandably, a mix of older and more recent footage (for the time), and therefore, certain amounts of aging artifacts are to be expected…but truth be told, this is not a great looking video any way you judge it.  There is some natural grain inherent in the higher contrast film stock employed by Ophuls, but all in all, the print also shows signs of wear and tear in the form of scratches, spots, and debris. Thankfully, both discs are dual layered to minimize compression.  It’s far from unwatchable, mind you, but it may be time for someone to consider giving this important picture a bit of a clean up job.

Audio **

Like the video, the audio also flaunts its age.  Dialogue clarity is never an issue, since this is a subtitled film, but a certain amount of noise, scratchiness and popping is apparent from time to time…and being that most of the film is quiet and spoken-word oriented, the noise is quite noticeable, though not really a distraction.   Again, I credit the problem to the source material, and not to Image’s handling of it.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Bravo to Image Entertainment for making an important film like The Sorrow and the Pity available to DVD enthusiasts everywhere.  Rich in detail, emotion and human experience, this four hour documentary of the German occupation and French Resistance is one no history or cinema buff should overlook.