Sunday, March 14, 2010

Movie Review: The Sorrow and the Pity

The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) is about the elusive search for the truth in the midst of history and memory. Marcel Ophuls 4 1/2 half hour documentary is about the German occupation of a French town during the Second World War. Produced in the late 1960s, The Sorrow and the Pity has an irreverent sixties spirit: a no nonsense approach to the past. At the film's heart is the question: What happens when society collapses?

The history of 20th century France is tragic. The First World War (1914-18) made a wasteland of their countryside and killed off a generation of its young men. In four years of war they fought the Germans to a stalemate, with the aid of their British and American allies. In the interwar period the French built the Maginot line, a series of fortifications along the German border designed to prevent another invasion. Before its completion the Second World War began (Sept. 1 1939) and the German army and forced the French to surrender, thus beginning an occupation lasting from June 1940-July 1944. After the allies liberated the new French leaders formed the Fifth Republic and were determined to preserve their empire. This led to two costly wars in Indochina (1946-54) and Algeria (1954-62) that divided the French people and created further political instability.

After the occupation ended a mystique grew about the heroics of the French Resistance and that the majority of the French, except for a minority of "collaborators," bravely stood up to the Nazis. The reality was far more complicated. In the 1930s the French people were bitterly divided over politics between extremists on the left (communists) and right (fascists). The polarized political situation led to mass apathy and cynicism about their system - and democracy itself. The Germans installed a puppet regime based in Vichy under the leadership of Phillipe Petain (1856-1951), the French hero from the First World War, an octogenarian who was only worked a few hours a day. The film implies that a majority of the French people supported the regime and turned a blind eye to its anti-Jewish laws (the most explosive charge in the film). But many joined the resistance.

Marcel Ophuls, the film's director conducted several probing interviews. His long interview with a German officer of the occupation who still wore his service medals provided the occupier's viewpoint. Anthony Eden, Churchill's foreign minister, is asked difficult questions about British policy during the French downfall, most notably on the infamous attack on Mers-El-Kebir. On July 3, 1940 the British destroyed the French Mediterranean fleet to prevent the Germans from capturing it - killing 1200 French sailors during the bombing. 

Ophuls most moving interviews were with two French farmers who bravely fought in the resistance - their quiet dignity is the backbone of the film. They saw injustice happening around them and decided to do something about it. The Sorrow and the Pity is not a "finger pointing" film, but rather one about empathy and understanding the choices people make under perilous circumstances.

The Sorrow and the Pity tells us history is messy. And that's a refreshing departure in an age of the condensed, user-friendly history fed to the public by the History Channel. The textbook versions of history are no better and are usually misleading, ephemeral, and bland. In the end such treatment does a disservice to those interested in history and for our own political discourse. The price of avoiding the complexity is grave. A first rate documentary.

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