Sorrow and the Pity, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: Aug 30, 2023
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Sorrow and the Pity, The (Blu-ray Review)


Marcel Ophuls

Release Date(s)

1969 (May 9, 2023)


Télévision Rencontre/SSR/NDR (Milestone Films/Kino Lorber)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: B-

The Sorrow and the Pity (Blu-ray)

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One of the great, revelatory documentaries of all-time, Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity (Le Chagrin et la Pitié, 1969) is a two-part, four-and-a-half-hour film about French culpability during the Nazi Occupation of France (1940-44). Unlike the Dutch, the Belgians, and the Norwegians, whose governments went into exile in London while their conquered nations bravely fought the Nazis on their home fronts at great cost, France was alone in that through its Vichy government, the people of France actively collaborated with its conquerors. Many people supported, if not the Nazis directly, the puppet Vichy government Germany installed, which in some cases enacting policies even more extreme than those in Nazi Germany. Unlike other war documentaries, viewers learn that the French were as anti-British nearly as much as they hated communist Russia.

The film is subtitled Chronicle of a French City Under the Occupation, specifically Clermont-Ferrand, a city in central France not far from Vichy itself. About half of the film’s running time consists of interviews with locals, ordinary citizens, both collaborators and resistance fighters, as well as a few German occupiers.

In most documentaries about World War II the “good guys” and “bad guys” are clearly defined and easily identifiable, but in The Sorrow and the Pity it’s not always so easy. Ophuls allows the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions, and many of the interviewees offer morally ambiguous testimonies. Late in the film, for instance, is a long interview with an older, bitter French woman accused of collaboration and who ultimately served a long prison sentence. She insists the jealous wife of a friend forged documents that condemned her, but Ophuls takes no definitive side regarding her guilt or innocence.

Originally made for French television, Ophuls’s work was instantly rejected because it was so damning in depicting pervasive collaborative France at all levels of society. Even far-flung Hollywood movies about the war almost always portrayed the French positively, with practically everyone in France either a member of the resistance or willing to stick their necks out to hide downed Allied airmen. In The Sorrow and the Pity, however, one learns many French resented Allied bombing raids after they capitulated, that they looked upon the résistance as a pack of undesirables, misfits, and thugs. Even within the movement itself, despite pleas from Winston Churchill for their various factions to band together, their leaders refused to work with French Communist Party members, regarding them with as much hatred, if not more so, than their German oppressors.

What’s most impressive about the work is that it asks difficult questions while providing no easy answers. Ophuls comes across a newspaper ad placed by a merchant insisting that, despite his Jewish-sounding name, he was actually Catholic, with siblings in the French Army, no less. He doesn’t want to be harassed like his Jewish neighbors. Ophuls locates the man who, without a trace of guilt, insists he has nothing against the Jews, but since he couldn’t claim to be Jewish himself, why should he let others assume he was and allow his shop to be vandalized? And, yet, despite his appalling responses to Ophuls’s questions, who among us today would have handled it any differently, self-preservation be damned?

Even now, more than a half-century since it was made, The Sorrow and the Pity has many jaw-dropping moments. One is with Denis Rake, a British SOE agent stationed in Paris, who discusses his homosexual relationship with a German soldier, and how badly he felt having to lie to his lover on a daily basis, necessary though it may have been. Or the darkly humorous escape of condemned Jewish government official Pierre Mendès France, whose path to freedom was blocked a young man trying to convince his girlfriend to have sex with him in the bushes. (A member of the Radical Party, it was France who, during his brief later tenure as Prime Minister of France in 1954-55, got the country out of Vietnam.)

Ophuls’s film impresses in revealing so many startling facts that “official” versions of the war, such as the excellent but at times politically manipulative Thames Television series The World at War (1973), leave out. One of The Sorrow and the Pity’s major interviews is with Christian de la Mazière, a member of the France bourgeoisie who joined the Charlemagne Division of the Waffen-SS within the German army. He and others of France’s upper classes argue men of his generation had been so inundated with anticommunist and anti-Semitic doctrine since childhood that, as members of the establishment, it was inevitable they’d side with doddering Marshal Pétain (88 years old and senile by the time the Occupation ended) and Prime Minister Pierre Laval. In another astonishing scene, the Nazis, through Laval, order the arrest of Parisian Jews over the age of 16. The French police, in their zeal, against orders also rounded about 3,000 children and infants, all of whom were ultimately gassed and murdered.

Laval was executed after the war, but Ophuls interviews his son-in-law, René de Chambrun, who defiantly presents “alternative facts” insisting that, under Laval, only 5% of France’s Jewish population were murdered when, as Ophuls points out, the correct figure was closer to 95%, in line with other continental European countries. Like many of France’s elite in the film, de Chambrun did not suffer too badly for his sins; for decades he served as the chairman of Baccarat, the crystal manufacturer, until 1992 and lived to be 95 years old.

A German officer stationed in Clermont-Ferrand, forever puffing on a big cigar and seemingly oblivious to his daughter’s wedding reception that day, proudly displays insignia badges on his jacket. When Ophuls asks whether people might be offended by insignia awarded by the Nazi regime, the unapologetic German insists the only complaints he receives are from those merely jealous because they don’t have any themselves.

The aging resistance fighters of 1969 express their concern about lingering anti-Semitism and neo-fascism in France, and the world at large. Indeed, so much of The Sorrow and the Pity resonates strongly precisely because the twisted rationales and apologists for Vichy policies in Ophuls’s film in so many ways reflect, almost mirror, even, statements and actions still being made and carried out around the world in 2023, including within the United States.

Milestone’s 2K restoration of The Sorrow and the Pity presents the film in its original black-and-white and 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Though made for French television it’s entirely possible, even likely, that a theatrical release in other markets was foreseen as the slight cropping does little in terms of compositional damage. Apparently, the show was shot entirely in 16 mm, incorporating newsreel and archival footage—including scenes from the French-dubbed version of the notoriously anti-Semitic Jud Süß (1940), so possibly for the 4K restoration some 35 mm film was sourced here and there. All things considered, this is a strong transfer with decent mono audio. The English subtitles are mostly good, though a little more care might have been done in creating them. Some of the interview subjects, for instance, speak English; we hear them speak on the soundtrack only to have their words appear in subtitle form translated from the French narration.

Beyond a reissue trailer, the only extra is a good one: a 40-minute oral essay by director Ophuls, conducted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 2017. It’s very worthwhile.

Not to be missed, The Sorrow and the Pity is an absolute must for any serious film collector.

- Stuart Galbraith IV