Marcel Ophüls (son of the great Max) made The Sorrow And The Pity for German and Swiss TV; it was 12 years before it got a screening on French television.
Why? Because it was “unpatriotic” according to the French authorities, who denounced a documentary which explodes the Gaullist myth of the war years that suggests the vast majority of French men and women bravely defied the hated German occupiers.
Using a mix of newsreel and specially shot interviews, the film tells a more credible – if less heroic – story. It’s split into two parts, each running some two hours.
‘The Collapse’ covers the traumatic weeks when the Vichy government capitulated to Hitler’s terms. ‘The Choice’ shows us just that – collaborate, resist, or keep your head down and hope to survive.
With his non-confrontational approach, Ophüls elicits wonderfully revealing testimonies. There’s the Auvergnat peasant who joined the Resistance, was censured by a neighbour, imprisoned and tortured – but took no revenge after the war.
The ex-Wehrmacht officer who knew nothing of any Jews being arrested or sent to the camps. And then, perhaps most contentiously, there’s British ex-PM Anthony Eden, Churchill’s Foreign Minister at the time, refusing to condemn: “A country that hasn’t been through the horrors of occupation… has no right to pronounce.”
The film itself takes up most of this two-disc set, but there’s a bonus 2004 NFT interview with Ophüls that offers a charming counterpoint to the movie’s bitter reminiscences.
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