Marcel Ophuls’s four-and-a half-hour documentary film about France under the Nazi occupation, The Sorrow and the Pity, was originally made for television, but it has never been shown on French television. Mainly the reason is that this film poses a mighty and devastating challenge to the official version of the French experience in World War II: the myth of the French as massively enrolled in, or at least standing behind, the Resistance, with the exception of a handful of collaborationists and of a small clique of reactionaries centered in an illegal and illegitimate Vichy regime. This myth has become hallowed with time, and its strength and resilience certainly invite rebuttal. Nevertheless, two excesses do not make one truth, and there is a danger that foreign audiences especially will accept The Sorrow and the Pity as not only the real truth about Vichy, but the whole truth as well.
That it is the “real” truth cannot be questioned. It is easy to use a movie camera for lies—propaganda films sometimes do so brilliantly. But there are no lies here. Ophuls has stated that his intention was to show the discrepancy between present testimonies and past reality, the distortions of memory and the soothing role of oblivion for many souls who need to find peace. This he has done superbly—for instance, when he asks Marius Klein, the shopkeeper, about his advertisement denying that he was Jewish; or when he interviews two ancient high-school teachers who do not seem capable of bringing their past back to life, or when d’Astier—aristocrat, former Resistance leader, former fellow-traveler of the Communists, and finally a Gaullist—repudiates, on the eve of his death, the demand he had made in 1944 for drastic purges; or when every German who appears in the film denies responsibility for atrocities or arrests which, invariably, were another service’s responsibility.
But Ophuls does much more than record lapses, denials, and inconsistencies. He shows how diversely the passage of time affects different people. He records the bitter and vivid memories of some—the two humane, quietly heroic, and so movingly matter-of-fact old peasants, the brothers Grave, who say that their feats as members of the Resistance gave them a bad reputation; the successful businessman who used to be Colonel Gaspar in the Resistance, and who now drives a German Mercedes but who remains haunted by the events of those years, upset by the false claims of “the Resistants of the last hour,” and contemptuous of those who took no risks then but now lie to themselves. De la Mazière, the former fascist, is still smarting from Pétain’s refusal to see him; as for his revolutionary “past” (he quite perceptively remarks that for the son of a traditional French counterrevolutionary officer to become a fascist was a form of contestation—just as it is today for the son of a Communist to become a Gauchiste), it has left him skeptical of ideologies and fearful of commitments. And there is, of course, that unforgettable character out of a Mauriac novel or a Clouzot movie: the hairdresser, Mme. Solange, arrested, tortured, and jailed after the Liberation on what she considers to be a trumped-up charge cooked up by a close friend who imitated her handwriting in an act of vengeance aimed both at her own husband and at Mme. Solange. Whether her story is true, we will never know, but about her own sufferings, and her resentments, and her firm and typical “apolitical” love for Pétain, her hands, her voice, her face, her words allow us no doubts.
Ophuls also shows men who have not changed at all, and regret nothing: on the one hand, former Captain Tausend, still proud of German victories, cheerfully self-righteous and convinced that Alsace is German, or that other ex-soldier of the Third Reich who still resents his capture by the Maquis; on the other hand, Pierre Mendès-France, as incisive, tough-minded, devoid of illusions or cant, articulate, combative, ironic, and proud today as when he was being hounded as a Jew and tried on a fake charge of desertion. If M. Verdier, the pharmacist who is in a way the movie’s anti-hero, has changed at all, it is only insofar as he has become a rather opulent bourgeois, as he smugly admits; his feelings haven’t changed in the least.
Truthful when he shows us what time has done to his characters, Ophuls is also right when he tells us what went on in the war years. The thread is provided by two figures. One is the invariably ebullient, bouncy, and mindlessly optimistic Maurice Chevalier, singing his silly little patriotic ditties during the phony war, then under Pétain, then after the Liberation. He symbolizes both the average guy’s resilience and talent for passing through all regimes, and the breezy mediocrity and shallow self-satisfaction that survive all ordeals. (It must be said, however, that there was much more to Chevalier than this; if Ophuls’s use of his songs and dances is a perfectly fair statement of a theme, it is unfair to the man, however much on target so far as his audiences are concerned.)
The other figure is the pharmacist, M. Verdier, who reveals himself as the perfect Francais moyen of those years: all events are reduced to him—at best, to him and his family. He let, as he put it, the front come to him; the defeat, to him, was like losing a rugby match; eating and prudence were his mottoes—out of fear of starvation he overfed his son born in 1942! The big event of 1943, for him, was the resumption of hunting. A monster, a scoundrel? Assuredly not. His horizon may be low, his sense of solidarity weak, his display of that form of individualism Tocqueville had prophesied—and detested—may be annoying, but the other side of the coin is a kind of soft humanity: he had refused to kill a German soldier whom he could have shot, he helped two Jewish girls, his powers of sympathy are genuine enough. But indignation and rebellion are not his forte: the only reaction one could have to the deportations of Jews, he says, was tears—hidden tears: in one’s cellar.
Other characters are revealed as even more mediocre: the hotel keeper at Royat, whose bad memories of the Germans who took over his hotel are limited to the fact that he did not get paid, and to the night when German soldiers tried to bring girls up to their rooms; the bicycle champion who saw no Germans in a city which was not merely occupied, after November 1942, but the scene of violent disturbances. If the movie so often seems a prosecutor’s brief, it is not because of the interviewers’ questions; it is because of the answers they get.
What is, ultimately, frightening about The Sorrow and the Pity, is what it reveals to some, and recalls to others, about the climate of quasi-civil war and Nazi occupation. It is Verdier who, characteristically, talks about sorrow and pity: soft feelings again. What seeps from the screen is contempt, hatred, and fear. D’Astier, in 1969, explains his bloodthirstiness of 1944 by the fact that throughout the war years he had lived in fear. It is fear which the two high-school teachers remember, amid the ruins of their memory, as the main reason that repression and arrests went unchallenged by their colleagues. It is fear which Dennis Rake, the British agent who lived in hiding in Vichy France, sees as the reason for the bourgeois’ caution and cowardice.
As for hatred, it is the kind of hatred which, as Mendès-France reports, inspired the followers of Pétain and Laval in their campaign against the parliamentarians who had sailed on the Massilia in order to keep fighting, and in their attacks on the Socialist leader of the Popular Front, Leon Blum, whom they blamed, absurdly, for France’s fall—because the Popular Front had scared them. It is hatred which that almost cartoonlike figure, the monarchist Resistance leader, Colonel du Jonchay, still feels toward Communists, and toward Mendès. It is hatred which bloated Vichy’s anti-Semitism, and the fascism of young men like de la Mazière, raised on a diet of anti-liberalism, anti-Communism, and disgust for foreigners and Jews. It is hatred which led to the Vichy militia’s abominations. It is hatred as well as envy and pettiness disguised as patriotic duty which turned poison-pen letters into an industry. It is hatred and a passion for hasty vengeance which swelled the inevitable wave of summary executions in the weeks that preceded and followed the Liberation.
And as for contempt, the movie is steeped in it: the contempt which we, as spectators, cannot help feeling toward some of the characters on the screen; the contempt which the former German occupiers obviously still have for the French who served them—on the black market or in bed—or who came asking for services, such as the right to hold horse races; the sardonic contempt, barely curbed by pity and empathy, which old General Spears, Churchill’s adviser and de Gaulle’s friend turned foe, suggests toward a nation that let England down and turns to military saviors even in defeat; the contempt of de la Mazière for the glittering nights of occupied Paris—but also for the drab soldiers of France compared to the healthy torsos of the Nazis; the contempt of Mendès (and of his lawyer) for the men who tried and jailed him. Whoever has not lived through such a period will get its poisons into his bloodstream while watching The Sorrow and the Pity.
And there is yet another truth that emerges here: a truth about what cemented each camp. The men of Vichy were those for whom order was the highest good. War was chaos and a permanent threat of subversion; only an authoritarian and reactionary regime could restore and consolidate “society,” undermined by democracy and labor unions and “excessive” freedoms and “foreign” miasmas. On the other side were all those for whom freedom came first, whether it was the lay, republican, humanitarian ideal of freedom the brothers Grave had absorbed in their socialist milieu and in the Republic’s public schools, or the somewhat less liberal, more narrowly patriotic instinct of freedom from foreign invaders which seems to have animated Colonel Gaspar.
That secondary truth—the diversity of each camp—is also brought home by the film. Lamirand, the amiable and gullible engineer who tried in vain to convert French youth to the cult of Pétain, and de la Mazière hardly seem to belong to the same world. D’Astier, the eccentric aristocrat who describes himself as the black sheep of his family, and who, after years of Communist fellow-traveling, died a left-wing Gaullist, proclaims—auto-biographically—that only “ill-adjusted” people were ripe for the risks of the Resistance; but the brothers Grave, so much in harmony with their hills and their land and their farm, were obviously well-adjusted men, who decided that what they had was worth fighting and dying for.
Finally, what is true, even if it hurts, is the portrait of people who, submitted to a barrage of propaganda and later to a deluge of bombs, fearful of famine and reprisals, caught between armies and police forces, uncertain of the future, afraid of the disastrous effects of any commitment, find whatever security is still available only by locking the doors of their homes and hearts, cling to their daily tasks, try to remain unnoticed, and pray for survival. Self-preservation is not the noblest of aims, but it is the most elementary. In the torn country of 1944, with all communications cut, battles raging, rumors on the rampage, executions and ambushes everywhere, each man, each family, each village or town tended to become a little sovereign island again. That this did not prevent an extraordinary revival of community and an explosion of national enthusiasm became clear at the Liberation—about which we see very little, and whose excesses only are mentioned.
Indeed, if nothing here is false, it is not the whole truth which we see. Foreigners should beware of judging wartime France on the basis of this movie alone. The Sorrow and the Pity lasts four-and-a-half hours: it is much too short a time for a fair sketch of France in those years. I wish Ophuls could have made a movie twice or three times as long, or a series. Whole chunks of history are missing. The complex, slow way in which public opinion woke up from its escapist dream of archaic reaction and sheltered neutrality, realized that its love affair with Pétain rested on delusions, and gradually recoiled from the harsh realities of oppression and collaboration, is not well shown here. The spectator remains under the impression that the parties, salons, theaters, and collaborationist movie stars of occupied Paris remained representative of French slackness or corruption throughout the period; this is not at all the case.
The Resistance was, of course, not the subject matter of the movie. Even so, it could have been less arbitrarily presented. The movie focuses on Clermont-Ferrand, the capital of Auvergne; but it neither reports the Resistance activities of the faculty and students from the University of Strasbourg, in exile in Clermont—which led to massive Nazi repression—nor dwells on those of the big Michelin rubber factory, in which management as well as workers took part (one person merely mentions the arrest of Mme. Michelin). While the statement, so often made since 1945 and echoed here by Dennis Rake, according to which the “people,” and especially the workers, joined the Resistance but the bourgeois did not, has some truth in it, it is much truer of the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie (with important exceptions, as in Clermont-Ferrand) than of the bourgeoisie of the professions. But one would not know it from this film. Nor is much said about a group whose impact was enormous, in days when the printed and the spoken word had such resonance: the intelligentsia. One rather crazy pro-Nazi novelist, Chateaubriant, is shown; why not, on the other side, Malraux or Vercors?
More seriously even, the diversity and complexity of French Resistance movements is barely suggested here. Why the Communist leader, Jacques Duclos, who had little to do with Clermont-Ferrand, appears on the screen is not clear. It was, of course, important that the Communist skills and sacrifices be evoked; but it would have been equally fair to stress the role of Christian Democrats and priests in the Resistance (the former head of the MRP, Georges Bidault, is interviewed, but talks of other things) . Too much emphasis is put on Colonel du Jonchay, who manages to make the Resistance look pretty silly; and while there are moving scenes with ex-Colonel Gaspar, some of the spectators may have felt sorry that the true hero of the movie (along with Mendès), the marvelous old Grave, who knows who was responsible for his deportation but refuses to avenge himself, was a member of the British Intelligence Service, not of the French Resistance: a small point, perhaps, for foreign audiences today, a sore one for many Frenchmen, especially at a time when Vichy and the Nazis kept denouncing the rebels as a rabble manipulated by London and Moscow.
Omissions bother me less, however, than what I would call a subtle distortion due to the process of selection. The whole truth is not here, not only because of what is left out altogether, but because of what is emphasized. Of course, the Resistance was not a mass movement—less than 250,000 “membership cards” were given out by the Veterans Administration after the war. But would it have been impossible for Ophuls to note how difficult it is to reach even that number in a largely petit-bourgeois country, in which most citizens do have something to lose—beyond their lives and freedoms—if they abandon their daily routine and throw themselves into the adventure of clandestinity? Of course Vichy’s anti-Semitic legislation, and Laval’s ghastly decisions about the Jews, bitterly recalled by Claude Levy, one of his young victims who survived to write eloquently about that sinister episode, represent hideous complicity with Nazism at its worst. But to say, as he does, that France was the only European country that collaborated, equates the Vichy regime and its police with France, and neglects all the Quislings and Oustachis elsewhere. Moreover, it leaves in the dark all those who helped Jews, foreign or French, to escape and survive.
To be sure, Rake and the British pilot downed over France, Evans, pay a tribute to the people who hid them. But—such is the power of the camera—what is said is less deeply convincing than what is shown, and so much of what is shown is grisly or shameful. The Resistance, small as it may have been, would not have had a chance of getting started and organized, and of surviving the highly efficient hounding of the Nazis and of their well-equipped French accomplices, if it hadn’t had—especially in 1943-44—the support, active and passive, of millions of Frenchmen, who provided the Maquisards with false identity papers, food, clothing, shelter, and information. Some people—like de la Mazière—preserved their “innocence” and closed their eyes and ears when victims were rounded up and sent to camps and jails. But there were many more who knew, and did their best to save or help these victims. All of this may have been unspectacular; but it was important, in itself and for the record. One does not see much of it here. It is as if the right tune were being sung, but in the wrong key.
For Americans, who have never experienced sudden, total defeat and the almost overnight disappearance of their accustomed political elites; who have never lived under foreign occupation; who do not know what Nazi pressure meant; who have never had any apparently legal government, headed by a national hero and claiming total obedience, that sinks deeper and deeper into a morass of impotence, absurdity, and crime; who have never had to worry first and last about food and physical survival, the wise and gentle warning of Anthony Eden must be heeded: do not judge too harshly—especially if you keep in mind all that is not graphically recorded here, and if you remember that the movie you watch is both a revelation, and a weapon in a painful domestic battle of the French with their past.
The Sorrow and the Pity not only mirrors the French of the war years; like all works of art, it also reflects its author. I have never met Marcel Ophuls, but his movie helps me to know him. He came to France, as a child, when his German-Jewish parents fled Nazi Germany. Max Ophuls, his father, the famous director of Liebelei, La Ronde, Lola Montes, became a French citizen, like many refugees from Central Europe, and served in the French army when the war began. His son, like so many children of aliens, must have been caught in that French melting pot that is almost as effective as, and less publicized than, the American one. France’s melting pot is her school system, her universalistic culture, the seductiveness of her intelligence and logic. Then came the catastrophe, and Vichy, with its statute discriminating against Jews in various professions—especially the movies—and its vendetta against naturalized refugees. The Ophuls family left for the United States in 1941. They did not return to France until 1950. Max Ophuls, unrecognized in Hollywood, once again found fame in France. Marcel became a movie director too.
This history, I think, explains a great deal. France is Marcel Ophuls’s country: how well he knows her ways, her landscapes, the tone of people’s conversations, the language of glances and gestures peculiar to her folk, the rhetoric of official propaganda, the atmosphere of her so often stifling provincial towns! But, obviously, his country deeply hurt him, as a child, in 1940. The Sorrow and the Pity is partly an exploration of the wound, partly the cry of a grieving convert—a child in flight from Nazi persecution, who had found new roots in France. As once uprooted people do, he had probably adopted France ever so passionately while she adopted him legally. He had probably fallen in love with the wisdom and poetry of French classics, the turmoil and intensity of French history, the ease and harmony of French daily life, the witty humaneness of the French peuple. Marcel Ophuls, growing older, must have found himself increasingly drawn back to those traumatic months of collapse, eerie revolution, sudden reversal of all values, and sudden fear; increasingly, he must have felt the need to come to grips with his own experience, and annoyance with French unwillingness to face the past, with official boastings, with the one-sidedness of the standard—the victors’—history. Both his resentment at the Germans who uprooted him a second time, and his grievances against the French who shattered his love affair, fill the screen. The subtle distortions I have mentioned are not accidental: they tell a story—his own.
How do I know this? By listening to the cool, sometimes insinuating, often cutting voice that interviews so many of the characters; and by listening to myself, whose personal history has many points in common with his own, except that I had come to France some years earlier, and not as a refugee, when I was a few months old, and that I remained in France throughout the war as a Frenchified Austrian—French by education and feeling, Austrian only by passport, a partly Jewish alien (my mother not having asked for naturalization in time), in a xenophobic anti-Semitic police state.
Hence both my sympathy and my dissent. The first half of the movie—“The Collapse”—is almost unassailable: Marcel Ophuls was there, lived through this, and gives us the best account since the first half-hour of René Clément’s Forbidden Games. This was indeed the feeling, of cowardly relief and collective brain concussion, the stunned flight from the war, the terrible blow—incomprehensible then, and, for many, even now—delivered by the British when they attacked the French fleet at Mersel-Kébir, the search for peace and quiet and discipline—and scapegoats—under the grand old oak, Marshal Pétain, the clarion calls for atonement, the arrogant wails of self-flagellation, and the daily miseries of partial occupation and food shortages.
But Marcel Ophuls was not there later on: hence the weaknesses of the second half, “The Choice.” He was not there when the “armies of the shadows” gathered in the woods, when Resistance networks defied the Gestapo and the Vichy militia and dropped their coded messages in the cities’ mailboxes, when the morale of an exhausted and restless nation was suspended on the exhortations of a handful of spokesmen at the BBC and on the eloquence of writers whose real names were disguised at the bottom of ill-printed columns in clandestine newspapers and confidential pamphlets.
These were the days of hope and fervor, when even those who were not heroic began to live vicariously with the heroes in an atmosphere of passionate anticipation that makes anything in the postwar world seem drab or drained by comparison. This is where the Official Version is vindicated: the grand Gaullist metaphor of a nation that overcomes its initial weakness, daunts its demons, climbs the slope again, and makes the final victory partly its own, surely flatters the French too much by downplaying the doubts and divagations of the earlier period, or the opportunism and savagery that marred the climb. But it is, basically, not false.
Who did not live in a French town or village the weeks just before and after the Liberation does not know the bliss of being happy with and proud of those among whom one had come through. Much of what went on earlier could be forgiven—the little capitulations and the small acts of selfishness and meanness, if not the cruelties and calls for murder—because of the price paid, and of the slowly opening eyes, and of the revanche that was also a redemption, later on. If Maurice Chevalier tells one part of the story—the part I also remember so well, from the miserable radio of 1939 or 1941—surely Jean Moulin, the martyred leader of the Resistance, and Charles de Gaulle’s inflexible genius tell the other part. Both parts are true; but since we all judge—maybe we shouldn’t, but we can’t help it—my own verdict is not at all as severe as Marcel Ophuls’s.
On the scales of history, when it will at last be possible to weigh men, their acts, and their effects more fairly, the great things will be weightier than the mean ones. In Marcel Ophuls’s movie, Verdier and the two almost senile schoolteachers remain a nagging, almost deafening counterpoint to the Graves, to Gaspar, and to Mendès. In my memory, the schoolteacher—now seventy-four and still vibrant—who taught me French history, gave me hope in the worst days, dried my tears when my best friend was deported along with his mother, and gave false papers to my mother and me so that we could flee a Gestapo-infested city in which the complicity of friends and neighbors was no longer a sufficient guarantee, this man wipes out all the bad moments, and the humiliations, and the terrors. He and his gentle wife were not Resistance heroes, but if there is an average Frenchman, it was this man who was representative of his nation; and for that, France and the French will always deserve our tribute, and have my love.