(This is the 49th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
The Sorrow and the Pity is one of those movies with so much depth, you are truly rewarded with each new viewing. Those viewings shouldn’t come too close to each other; watching more than four hours of talking heads, with people speaking in French, German, and English, with subtitles and voiceover translations, takes a lot of mental work. But it’s the kind of mental work we are called upon to exercise so infrequently when watching movies, the result is invigorating, and your energy level actually picks up steam as the film continues on and each of the people featured in the interviews become more complete.
It’s a film about the Occupation years in France during World War II, told via newsreels and interviews with the participants (it was made in the late-60s, and many of those people were still alive to tell their tales). It turns every notion you’ve ever had about the Resistance and collaborators on its head, because, while it’s clear Ophüls has a point of view, he gives each interviewee the opportunity to explain their actions. Some famous figures come across as heroic, some not, but what really hits home are the “regular” people. Like the farmer, a former Resistance fighter who was denounced and sent to Buchenwald … he knows who turned him in, but he never sought revenge, because it would make him as bad as the other fellow. That sounds like someone who would fit nicely into Casablanca. And there are others like him.
But there are other Frenchmen and women who, while not doing anything that was outright evil, nonetheless participated in the Occupation, who didn’t cause trouble, who accepted the Nazis into their daily lives. There are far more of these people than you might have known about, and while The Sorrow and the Pity was made for French television, it wasn’t shown there until 1981, perhaps because of the implications about the reality of French life during the Occupation when compared to the myth of resistance.
The film also approaches one my favorite subjects, the vagaries of memory. People tell stories about what happened to them 25 years earlier; other people tell stories that contradict the story you just heard. Some people make grandiose claims based on “facts", only to have the interviewer gently contest those “facts” with facts of his own that put the lie to the original speaker.
Ultimately, The Sorrow and the Pity puts us in the position of thinking about how we might have reacted in that situation. We might see ourselves as heroic, and the mythology tells us most French people were indeed heroes. But we also see that the myth is often more false than true, and that ordinary people act in ordinary ways under extraordinary circumstances, when to be ordinary is to be a collaborator.
The film does not take a side, exactly. I mean, it’s anti-Fascism. But it doesn’t try to draw pictures of good guys and bad guys. It just gives us people, in all their complications, and let’s us think about them for ourselves. Anthony Eden gets the last word: “One who has not suffered the horrors of an occupying power has no right to judge a nation that has.”
There were plenty of comments on this one, but most were devoted to guessing what our #1 picks would be.