The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

“Some people are resistant by nature. In other words, some people are naturally headstrong. Others on the contrary, try to adapt to the circumstances, and get what they can out of it. If you are a resistant over everything and nothing, you’re exaggerating. But if you accept everything, you’re lying.”

‘The Sorrow and the Pity’, directed by Marcel Ophüls in 1969, is a French documentary examining in forensic detail the Nazi occupation of France, focusing on the city of Clermont-Ferrand. Through a series of interviews with resistance fighters, ex-German and British soldiers, collaborators, intelligence officers and high ranking politicians (including former Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Anthony Eden), Ophüls narrates not only the events of the war, but also the psychological effect and trauma the occupation had on the French. Ophüls combines the interviews with archive footage including newsreels and propaganda movies from the various countries. The documentary is sombre but dry in tone, the events depicted are narrated with little moral commentary, and only occasionally (but pointedly) does Ophüls himself appear to offer a reaction to what is being shown, once with a wry, disbelieving look to the camera. What stood out to me, especially this year as both Britain and America seem to have lurched to the right, is how the occupation brought to the surface pre-existing anti-Semitism and racism. We see through the film a path from the indignation and tragedy of defeat, through the resignation of surrender to the dark schism, the ‘choice’ of the second half’s subtitle, between resistance and collaboration. The resistance fighters are shown to be brave during the war, but ruthless after, whilst, more troublingly, the collaborators are shown to be even more extreme than the Nazi occupiers. The message I took from this documentary is that a society is only one shock vote, one incident away from totalitarianism, and that this collapse to the right can happen in a short space of time. Worrying, sobering and timely, just as Ophüls tells us the story of the occupation of France through Clermont, he also offers a warning to history through his interviews and his presentation. ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ is as much about today as it is about then.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s an epic and traumatic movie, as detailed and forensic as ‘Night and Fog’ was short and condensed. Together they would offer a perfect and complete documentary of the Second World War. But I would suggest ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ as a double bill – a film that is also about resistance, collaboration and occupation, but one that contains its resistance behind the scenes. It’s a movie where the very fabric of the film is scored with the effects of creating art under a Fascist rule.

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