THE SORROW AND THE PITY

1969; directed by Marcel Ophüls; written by André Harris and Marcel Ophüls; 251 mins

Part One – The Collapse (l’effondrement): A look at the French experience during WWII, singling out the town of Clermont-Ferrand which was, temporarily after the Nazi invasion, the seat of government for Petaín and the Vichy government. The first half of the film concerns itself with the downfall of France from 1940 to 1942, the attitudes of the people and British betrayal* that led to the split and the rise of the resistance.

First things first, go in armed with a full night’s sleep and your wits about you because the information in this film is both exhaustive and exhausting. It’s a bitch trying to keep up with the layers upon layers of interviewees, events, archive footage and narration- and I think the film does assume a bit too much knowledge of it’s audience (passage of time, though) – but eventually, a process begins to emerge. Even if you aren’t quite keeping up with everything (and when I say “you”, I mean “I”), it becomes clear that Ophüls‘ goal is to show, through the wealth of conflicting evidence and opinions, that France was a nation which was severely politically divided even despite the arrival of the Nazis. It seems to be saying that, possibly, this was a major catalyst for their downfall. You have interviewees who aided the resistance, resistance fighters, collaborators, politicians on both sides of the fence, an ex-fascist, ex-German army officers, one-time British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and many other people from various different echelons and political viewpoints.

The divisions detailed by the film are perhaps best summed up by one government minister, who blithely tells us that the French people actually wanted to be occupied, a seemingly enormously patronising, bourgeois thing to say; that it was in the French character to want to have, sort-of, ‘paternal’ overseers. All this before Pierre Mendès-France, the first half’s main interviewee, says; “… anti-Semitism and Anglophobia are never hard to stir up in France… for beliefs we thought dead to simply be dormant”. This is one of many statements from the film that seems particularly relevant in 2017. With the rise of the far right throughout Europe and America (not least in France itself), to hear that some factions in society just don’t change is almost surprising that it should even be surprising. You can see here and now if you want to find it.

Of course, those factions were awfully surprised when the Nazis turned out not to be so much collaborators as masters. The Third Reich’s attitude became, as one old bar patron tells us: “Give me your watch and I’ll tell you the time”.

In the end, it’s clear that the first half is, rather like Steven Soderbergh’s Che or Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, gearing us up to show in what atmosphere, ordinary people were compelled to fight back. Tellingly, it ends with two old teachers who, when not dancing around the questions posed, discuss the reasons why young people in their school rebelled, putting it down to young, out of control emotions.

Part Two: The Choice (la choix): OK, so here is less of a history lesson, more of a discussion. The politicians dominated the first half but here we have more of Christian de la Mazière, the ex-fascist and Alexis & Louis Grave, the resistance fighters in Clermont-Ferrand.

It did strike me, during the first half, that it sometimes takes the most despicable person, to tell the truth of the matter. When so many of the french interviewees were dancing around various failures of strategy and/or character, de la Mazière was perfectly frank about what they did wrong. However, in that half, I was unsure quite what “ex-fascist” was meant to mean. In this part of the film, with a good half hour given him to talk at length, it seems he was – if not repentant – keen to explain himself. He was, essentially, a born aristocrat and with Bolshevism being out of the question, he embraced Fascism as a way to ‘rebel’ but realised too late that it was betrayal of his country. When asked if he is now liberal, he replies “A bit”.

I was about to say ‘not the ideal answer’ but then why should what I want matter? His parting from the far right is far more satisfactory than the platitudinous politicking of René de Chambrun. Son-in-law to Pierre Laval (prime minister of Vichy France), he outrageously contends the issue of Laval’s proven involvement in the deportation and extermination of Jewish children, as proven by the research of Ophüls, Harris and survivor, Marius Klein.

Things get most interesting, however, when detailing the aftermath of the occupation in ’44. When France was liberated, the film discusses the retaliation against collaborators. When Ophüls and editor Claude Vajda (who really deserves more credit for his superhuman feat here) show the footage of politicians calling for violent retribution against the collaborators or the show trials and executions, they seem to show them as roughly similar to the fascists beforehand. The film seems to see these vengeful orators and their like-minded audiences as being as much of a problem as the fearful citizens of 1940. The title of the film becomes apparent, the sorrow and the pity is directed towards a nation that had not learned, simply moved on. Ophüls was making this documentary as a conversation starter rather than a once-and-for-all statement.

The film’s purpose seems to be, not so much exposing the shame of one person or any one ideology but rather the shame of a nation. In fact, The Choice goes further into detailing Vichy France’s complicity in the Holocaust and examining the guilt that was still very prevalent at the time the film was made. Interesting that it should come out the same time as Melville’s Army of Shadows which, like this film, experienced it’s fair share of censorship upon release. Coupled with the banning of Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers three years earlier and it seems that Ophüls’ film reflected the times: when should a people face up to the facts?

*As a Brit, I honestly had never heard of this and I suspect many of us have never been taught it.

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