Sorrow and the Pity, The (1972): Revisiting Marcel Ophuls’ Seminal Documentary about French Collaboration with the Nazi Regime

Marcel Ophuls’ seminal documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity (French: Le Chagrin et la Pitié) deals with the collaboration between France’s Vichy government and Nazi Germany during World War II.

The film uses interviews with German officers, collaborators, and resistance fighters from Clermont-Ferrand, who comment on the reasons for collaboration, including anti-semitism, Anglophobia, fear of Bolsheviks and Soviet invasion.

The title comes from a comment by interviewee Marcel Verdier, a pharmacist in Montferrat, Isère, who says “the two emotions I experienced the most during the Nazi occupation were sorrow and pity.”

Part One: The Collapse

It begins with an interview with Pierre Mendès France. He was jailed by the Vichy government on trumped-up charges of desertion after leaving France on the SS Le Masilia, together with Pierre Viénot, Jean Zay, and Alex Wiltzer, in an attempt to rejoin his military unit which had moved to Morocco. But Mendès France escaped from jail to join Charles de Gaulle’s forces in England, and later served as prime minister of France for 8 months from 1954 to 1955.

Part Two: The Choice

This part focuses on Christian de la Mazière, as a counterpoint to Mendès France. Whereas Mendès France was a French Jewish political figure who joined the Resistance, de la Mazière, was an aristocrat who embraced Fascism, was one of 7,000 French youth to fight on the Eastern Front wearing German uniforms.

The film shows the French people’s divided response to the occupation.  The postwar humiliation of the women who served and/or were married to German soldiers reflects the title’s complex emotions.

“Sweepin’ the Clouds Away,” the film’s theme song, is performed by Maurice Chevalier, who was a popular entertainer with the German occupation force.

The film was nominated for the 1971 Best Documentary Oscar Award, and received a special award by the National Society of Film Critics, which called it “a film of extraordinary public interest and distinction.”

In 1972, it was named Best Foreign Language Film by the National Board of Review (NBR).

 

Note:

I ma grateful to TCM for showing this documentary on January 27, 2020, on the International Holocaust Day (marking the 75th anniversary to the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviets).