Wednesday 22 July 2015

1,001 Films: "The Sorrow and the Pity/Le Chagrin et la pitié" (1971)

There is an anecdote, a few minutes into the second part of The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls' overwhelming four-hour documentary of the Nazi occupation as experienced by one French town, which perfectly illustrates the compulsion to maintain business as usual by any means necessary - the normalisation of extreme behaviour being exactly what Ophuls is getting at here. A German officer of the time, and a French cinema owner, are recalling an incident in which a platoon of German soldiers filing into the latter's establishment came to be ambushed by Resistance fighters armed with grenades. Eight soldiers died, and as the cinema owner wryly notes: "The ambulances arrived, and the show went on."

Unlike Lanzmann's similarly lengthy Shoah, which roamed across Europe to plot a map of the Holocaust, Ophuls limits his inquiries to the town of Clermont-Ferrand, making his documentary a more contained viewing experience, the territory explored less geographical than psychological: a stamp round the adjacent areas on either side of the fine line between resistance and acceptance, opposition and collaboration. Given today's anything-goes, shot-on-the-hoof documentary culture, where subjects and interviewees tend to be shot wearing whatever they happen to be in at the time, what's initially most beguiling about Ophuls' film is that everyone has clearly dressed up to make the occasion of being filmed, and often gathered their family and friends around them, either for support or to give the illusion of a united front. This is clearly a big moment for the people of Clermont, a chance to get their experiences and their opinions on the record a full twenty-five years after the events under discussion.

Ophuls' patient approach yields countless telling moments. An aristocratic ex-fascist leads the crew around his lavishly furnished home; a couple of farmers are overruled by their wives, sitting in the kitchen; a dad recalls the rationing of cigarettes while his young son, a product of the post-War baby boom, lights up. Throughout, Ophuls preserves a strictly democratic feel - a sense that there are, in the majority of cases, other people in the room, and not always people who agree with what the speaker is saying. His point would appear to be that the idea of a united front is, in itself, a questionable if not outright fascistic one: reality is always more complex and contradictory than that, and to throw a rope or draw a line around the French people is, in its own way, as inherently constraining as rounding them all up to be shot as freedom fighters.

The process of testimony necessarily entails a long sit, and one perhaps not quite as enlightening as Shoah. (It's the problem with setting up one's camera in a small town: after a while, you end up meeting the same people and going round and round in circles.) Yet when one interviewee makes the claim "the French aren't very interested in politics... all they do is [something demonstrative like] storm the Bastille every now and again," you do realise even this bluntly participative form of politics has left France in a healthier position than many other nations. There is now something deeply ingrained in the French consciousness - as evident from, say, Irreversible as it is from Ophuls' film - that warns against the dangers of complacency, standing by and watching, of a failure to take action, which jars with the cultures of those Western countries (the US and UK especially) who went unconquered - and whose cinema has always tended to look back on the Second World War with nostalgic reverence rather than sorrow, pity or anger.

(May 2004)

The Sorrow and the Pity is available on DVD through Arrow Films.

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