The Sorrow and the Pity

Near the beginning of this documentary about the German occupation of France, a bourgeois pharmacist tells director Marcel Ophüls that rather than being moved to courage in the face of the German forces, elicited instead were the emotions of sorrow and pity

Classic Film: The Sorrow and The Pity (1969)
Director: Marcel Ophüls
Starring: Georges Bidault
Runtime: 251 Mins
Review: Liam O’Brien
Rating: ****

Near the beginning of this documentary about the German occupation of France, a bourgeois pharmacist, smoking heavily and surrounded by his family, tells director Marcel Ophüls that rather than being moved to courage in the face of the German forces, elicited instead were the emotions of sorrow and pity.

A short while after, we are told of how Parisian women planted rose bushes on the Maginot line so that soldiers waiting there for the oncoming attack would have something nice to look at. In these two anecdotes we become aware of how the French had not readied their minds for warfare, and how the decisive and cruel actions it entails sat ill-at-ease with the country’s peaceable nature.

French authorities considered the film too one-sided, and banned the film until 1981. In reality, the reasons for collaboration (anglophobia, anti-semitism, political machinations, bourgeois preference of Hitler to Léon Blum, fear of communism) were considered too shocking for a nation irreparably scarred by the occupation.

Common criticisms of the film, that it is overlong, repetitious and divisive in its portrayal of social classes, should be weighed against the breadth and scope of the project. Particularly devastating are the German and French propaganda inserts. A video of black Allied soldiers dancing, married to a German voice proclaiming sarcastically “these are the guardians of civilization” is disturbing, and anyone whose interest in the cinema of occupied France was piqued by Inglorious Basterds must see Ophüls’ choice presentation of material from Le Juif Süss.

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