What to stream: ‘Le chagrin et la pité’, a historical documentary that transformed France’s national identity

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All of the films relate to their place and time, but some are almost incomprehensible out of context. This is the case of the great documentary by Marcel Ophuls of 1969, “Sorrow and pity”, even if its history is well known. The film in two four-hour parts, which is broadcast on OVIDE in a new restoration and also available on Milestone and Kanopy, focuses on World War II in France, centering on life in the small town of Clermont-Ferrand, in the center of the country. It covers the German invasion and occupation of France; the formation of the Vichy regime, only twenty-nine miles from Clermont, under Marshal Philippe Pétain; the rise of the French Resistance; and the Liberation in 1944 and its aftermath. What made these facts familiar was, to a large extent, the film itself: it is a landmark work that changed the course of history, and its impact on its moment is exemplified by the opposition he faced and eventually overcame.

In “Grief and Pity,” Ophuls, making his first feature-length documentary, tells a vast and complex story in a form that now feels classic, even overused. It is composed primarily of interviews with a wide range of participants and witnesses to the events. Ophuls cuts the material into interview chunks and puts them together to develop the story arc; the interviews are punctuated with illustrative archive footage. As familiar as the format is now, when Ophuls made “Grief and Mercy,” few noteworthy documentaries were constructed in this way. Extended interviews in front of the camera depended on portable sound synchronization equipment that was not developed until the late 1950s, resulting in “Chronique d’unété” by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin (the film for which Morin coined the term “cinema-vérité”), Robert Drew’s “Primary” and successors such as “Salesman” by the Maysles brothers and “Hospital” by Frederick Wiseman.

Unlike those modern masterpieces, however, “The Sorrow and the Pity” is neither immersive nor reflective. Instead, its originality lies in its very simplicity – its deceptive modesty. Although Ophuls and his co-writer, André Harris, are heard, sometimes even seen, in discussion with the interview subjects, the film does not emphasize these interactions or their centrality to the action in the film. ‘screen. On the contrary, their intervention is most emphatic and visible in the assembly of the large number of interview sequences (between fifty and sixty hours, according to Ophuls) into a tense and coherent narrative. Ophuls and Harris rarely challenge the subjects’ assumptions or assertions; putting their interlocutors at ease, they collect a varied and abundant range of testimonies and points of view. This very variety – its sweeping scope, its complexity, its conflicting viewpoints – is the film’s raison d’être.

The interviews depict a remarkable diversity of participants, filmed in situ (at home, at their place of work, or in public, or in a judiciously chosen significant place) and suggest a sample of French society during the war: a sample of wartime classes, ideologies and activities that make individual speakers and their experiences both singular and exemplary. (Only the dearth of women as on-screen subjects diminishes the film’s representative authority.) “Grief and Pity” includes resistance fighters of lowly status – whether farmers or laborers – as well as politicians from high rank and even aristocrats motivated by patriotism, indignation or ideology. The film also spotlights pampered upper-class collaborators, as well as middle-class officials and small-business owners who were forced to cooperate with the occupiers. There is even an unrepentant defender of Vichy (and the son-in-law of one of its officials) who takes preposterous precautions to downplay the effects of the Holocaust on Jews in France and the role of the French government in it. Ophuls also puts the daily life of the Occupation and the Resistance into an international political context, through interviews with British politicians and officers, German officials (including a translator for Hitler) and the politician French Pierre Mendès France, who worked with the Free French Government in Exile of Charles de Gaulle. (With his history of anti-Semitic persecution under Vichy and his flight from France, Mendès France warns against the lingering and unappeased temptations of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.)

Ophuls’ editorial storytelling has a deft brilliance that shifts imperceptibly between the personal and the general, the representative and the distinctive. There’s a quasi-literary power to the interviews: the story of a Clermont shopkeeper named Klein, who was careful to avoid being misidentified as a Jew (a bizarre anticipation of Joseph Losey’s 1976 drama , “Mr. Klein”); a woman who had been convicted, on the basis of handwriting samples, of having denounced a resister to the Gestapo; and the story of a gay British spy with a German lover in Paris. We learn of the tight escape of French politicians to Morocco en route to London and the atrocious decision of British leaders to bombard the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria (then French territory), to prevent it from fall into German hands. . The farmer Louis Grave, active in the Resistance, is denounced, arrested and deported to Buchenwald, but, after the Liberation, he refuses to take revenge on the person who denounced him to the Gestapo, and Grave does not forgive him either. He endured the knowledge of betrayal as if it were a form of moral revenge, superior to prosecution or violence.

This range of backgrounds, inclinations, and activities marks the frame-breaking power of Ophuls’ practical aesthetic. It publicly states what, in the twenty-five years between the film and the Liberation, had been privately understood, whether in family circles or in the corridors of power, but had remained largely unspoken. It contradicts the founding myth of France’s post-war Fourth and Fifth Republics, that France, with the exception of a few dastardly politicians and a relatively small number of collaborators, was largely a country of resistance, that the French Resistance far outnumbered and outnumbered the French collaborationists. . Incidentally, the film also presents an intellectual x-ray of the ideological quagmire of anti-Semitism and anti-communism that underpins France’s defeat by Germany and its willingness to collaborate – the demonization of the moderate democratic left. , the preference of many for an anti-democratic far right, the racist hatred that fuels such inclination, and the admiration for a bloodthirsty foreign dictator who nurtures and encourages these authoritarian sympathies. (A word for the wise.)

“Grief and Pity” in no way diminishes the commitment or effectiveness of Resistance fighters or their behind-the-scenes accomplices and enablers. Far from demystifying the Resistance, Ophuls intensifies our vision of the heroism of the resisters, precisely because their actions were exceptional – because they took place in the headlong passivity of many neighbors and the active hostility of others. Moreover, the documentary also points out that the active sympathizers of the Resistance, who did not bear arms but simply helped it by knowing it – knowing that their neighbors were engaged in partisan combat and said nothing – were equally heroic. The potential price of resistance – arrest, torture, execution, deportation to concentration camps – also screams through the interviews, underscoring the courage of resisters while suggesting empathy for those just going about their business. One of the interlocutors, the British politician Anthony Eden, acts as a spokesman for Ophuls, reserving his judgment on the people of France under Vichy by affirming that those who did not know “the horror of occupation by a foreign power” have “no right to pronounce” on those who have done so.

In its pragmatism, the film is nonetheless a work of indignation, less against individuals, even the most despicable on sight, than against France as a whole, post-war France and its self-described political mythology. -silent and self-exempting. There is something strange, implicitly meta in “Le chagrin et la pitié”: its main story is that France is telling a story. Yet this myth, of a nation of resisters, is no more explicitly unveiled in the film than, say, the myth of Manifest Destiny is unveiled in the greatest Hollywood westerns; it is there as the uncontested and ambient background of the action, the underlying idea on which the action depends. In “Sorrow and Pity”, this “action” is the discourse that reveals the making of this founding myth. The entire film is, in effect, a counter-story, that is, the complex and insoluble truth, which had little place in French public life or in the sense of French identity. It’s as if the whole of France is involved in the virtual contra-angle of the documentary – its defiant and provocative close-up.

Ophuls, born in 1927, took part in the events of May 1968. He and the producers of his film, Harris and Alain de Sedouy, were then working for French television and went on strike, which cost them their jobs and their programs. Despite all the political demands of students and other activists at the time, the central thrust of May was cultural change: a breakdown of ossified mores, of the shifted and shifted barrier between French public culture and the lives of its people.

Yet the film, in attempting to break the silence on the realities of Vichy France, was silenced. ‘Grief and Pity’ premiered in West Germany in 1969, but, although intended for French television (which was then entirely state-run), it was refused broadcast by means of a subterfuge which was itself a silence. The filmmakers held private screenings, but bureaucratic TV decision makers simply never attended, saying they had no time to consider such a long film – as if, trying to avoid the likely controversy of the film’s rejection on its merits, they were ignoring it in the hope that it would go away. Instead, the film received a very limited theatrical release and did not air on French television until October 1981, five months after François Mitterrand, a socialist, was elected President of France. Once released, according to The world, “it was not the political and sociological event that the channels had anticipated.” This apparent failure was a hallmark of the film’s success: in its relatively clandestine way, it had already done its period work. The silence was broken; the revelations had become common knowledge. ♦

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