When I said I might be sticking around in France for a while The Sorrow and the Pity was not the film I quite had in mind. Honestly, I thought I would be watching Masculine-Feminine and end up complaining about, yet again, not understanding Jean-Luc Godard. Instead, we went for one of the longest films left on the 1001 list and ended up with a 4 hour documentary about the German occupation of France in World War II.
With the exception of the OJ: Made in America documentary (which is really more a TV series than a film) the last documentary film that I saw was The Thin Blue Line. When I think about how long ago that was (just over a year) I am appalled at how long it has been.
Considering the political climate of the moment (as in I watched this before the final round of the French presidential elections) a film like this is one that needs to be shown more often. Never have I come across a documentary that is able to explain the psychology of a nation so succinctly.
It has become a bit of a running gag in English-language pop culture that the French will surrender at the first sign of trouble. This is despite the fact that other nations did pretty much the same thing in the face of an unstoppable war machine. Having watched The Sorrow and the Pity I have a greater deal of understanding how this all came to be.
It’s complicated and I’m unlikely to ever completely understand it, but that’s okay. As former UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden so succinctly put it at the end of the film: “One who has not suffered the horrors of an occupying power has no right to judge a nation that has.” These are words (that need to be repeated ad nauseum on news broadcasts) which make for the perfect summary of this film.
Over the course of 4 and a bit hours Marcel Ophüls takes us through France’s occupation, collaboration and liberation. Through the use of interviews and archive footage we meet so many people from leaders to resistance-fighting farmers and get to know them through their actions in this period.
As you listen to stories such as those of Prime Minister Laval sending 4000 Jewish children to their death, a woman framing a friend for denouncing her husband and naive French citizens who took the Nazi invaders’ words for truth you end up asking the impossible question – how would I have acted?
The answer for this just circles back to Eden’s quote – unless you have been a citizen in an occupied nation, you can never judge. With all the history and all the information that The Sorrow and the Pity imparts it is this weird feeling that I am left with. It’s not a comfortable one either.
I know that Shoah is seen by many to be THE documentary about World War II, but a real case can be argued for The Sorrow and the Pity. The scope of the documentary is grander and, where Shoah was an onslaught of pain, this film creates a compelling narrative that answers questions about Vichy France that I never knew I had.