Friday, 19 June 2020

The Sorrow and the Pity (Le Chagrin et la Pitie) (1971)

The Sorrow and the Pity (La Chagrin et la Pitié) is a documentary by Marcel Ophüls about the Second  World War in France. It is a massive, two-part, four hour long story about people in France, particularly in and around the city of Clermont-Ferrand and their experiences during the war.

There is very little historical context in this documentary, if you are not fairly familiar with the larger historical picture it is very easy to get lost in the movie. Instead Ophüls mixes authentic clips from the forties with present (early seventies) interviews with people who were there.

These people range from politicians to farmers, resistance fighters and former fascists, even former German soldiers and British politicians and airmen.

This is not about specific event during the war, but more about what people thought at the time, why they did what they did and their explanations for why they did it. Lots of excuses, incriminations, explanations, lies and common sense in the mix.

In 1940 France was attacked by Germany and whereas WWI led to a four-year long stalemate, France was defeated in a swift campaign. Why? How? And what did that defeat do to the French and their self-understanding? Turns out a large part of the higher echelon in the military actually welcomed the German regime, preferring it to the leftist bickering in France. Or is that just an excuse? Germany went on to occupy the northern part of France, including Paris, while the southern part was run by a French puppet government led by Laval and the hero of WWI Marshal Pétain, now an old man. Was this treason? How did supporters of this excuse this?

In this environment a partisan resistance slowly grew up fighting the Germans and the collaborators and eventually Germany took over the entire country. Who were these people, fighting the Germans and what about the Germans fighting the Resistance?

Finally, there was the liberation and the mayhem that led to, revenge on all the traitors, or simply an excuse to settle scores?

The strength of this documentary is that it is simply about people. There is a face to everybody, it is very personal, and it is mostly about the narratives that these people have constructed for themselves. It is difficult to say that these people are delusional, it is merely human nature to place yourself in a context where you can live with yourself and it is in that light this documentary becomes very interesting. It is simply fascinating to get all these first-hand accounts on a period that was so traumatic and because of this personal element it also becomes interesting for non-French viewers.

Marcel Ophüls himself has an interesting story, being actually a German Jew who fled to France in the thirties with his family and then, after the French defeat, fled again through Spain to America. Later in the fifties Ophüls went back to France and became a highly skilled documentarist. If the name sounds familiar then it is probably because of his father, Max Ophüls, a famous movie director who did several films on the List, such as “Letter from an Unknown Woman” and “Madame de…”.

In its day “The Sorrow and the Pity” became a great success, largely because it was considered controversial. Apparently, it was questioning the official, heroic narrative. But I think its lasting power is not due to controversy but because of all these personal contributions. This is simply interesting to watch and listen to.

Highly recommended.


  1. Ophuls seemed to spend his entire career trying to figure out not specifically what happened during the Holocaust but how it could have happened. How do what seem like morally normal that?

    Based on what the world looks like now, it's a question that needs to keep being asked.

    1. It is indeed a great mystery and worth looking into.
      I saw this movie as a lot more than just Holocaust. In fact, Holocaust seems to be a fairly small part of it. This was more from a French perspective, how they coped with the defeat, how they saw the Germans, fighting or collaborating and so on.

      Why indeed would people want to follow an agenda that is obviously moral wrong? Can the world really look that different from a different perspective? Good questions indeed.

  2. I don't remember a whole lot about this one except that I thought it was fascinating. I've had a life-long interest in why some people turn out to be evil. Still no answer.

    1. A worthy quest. I doubt this movie gives you the answers but it is fascinating to hear all these first hand accounts. I think you will find it interesting.