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Personal Histories, Collective Shame

The Sorrow and the Pity, at the Charles Cinema thru Tuesday

By Alan Heppel

THE SORROW AND THE PITY is an immense and truly extraordinary testimonial to humanity's infinite potential to do good or evil, but mostly to do nothing. In its four and a half hours it explores the effects of the Occupation on the French city of Clermont-Ferrand: its citizens and the outsiders who touched it, famous and not, French and foreign. It rediscovers the truths which lurk beneath the myth of French resistance, exposing the very ugly fact that collaboration and not resistance dominates the story. That this weakness is not exclusively French but characteristically human reinforces the horror and sympathy this chronicle draws from us.

Although an epic of sorts about World War II. The Sorrow is primarily a documentary of people--who are, after all, the substance of history. The events of the war are a framework and a point of departure, no more than that. The film carries the sad message of human fallibility and deals with the complex of eagerness and discouragement which drives men to apathy. Its lessons are taught by those who endured the war's daily life with more or less dignity. They are the bit players, but they fill this European stage. Ultimately, humankind's performance depends on them and their kind.

The Sorrow speaks with a very personal voice. It deals primarily with ordinary Frenchmen and Germans who have reduced the Holocaust to forms of individual and family history. Helmuth Tausend, a German officer stationed in Clermont-Ferrand, first speaks of the war as a six-year separation from his new bride. Marcel Verdier, a pharmacist, refers to the obsession with food he and his countrymen developed. Pierre Mendes-France, who was Secretary of State before the collapse, recalls both matters of government and of the desire for small needs like kitchen matches. Those who struggled against the Nazis give personal, seemingly insignificant reasons for doing so. Those who didn't fight provide equally commonplace explanations. It was a time to cultivate one's own garden. The nightmare becomes all the more compelling as we realize that most of these people wished only to be left alone.


THERE ARE INTERVIEWS with statesmen, and they are asked about policy decisions, but they themselves demonstrate how fundamentally low-keyed and human the workings of history are. Events like the British destruction of the French fleet are examined in terms of personal reactions by the French and English. As example, Major-General Edward Spears recalls seeing French sailors flirting with some English girls in Hyde Park while, as he knew, their compatriots were being attacked in the Mediterranean.

And there are the Great Men. Churchill, de Gaulle, Petain, and especially Hitler loom up before the Clermont-Ferrand landscape. But they, too, exist as personalities in individual memories: Hitler is recalled as favoring "harmless little liaisons" over inter-marriage, claiming that his soldiers' desire to marry French women was caused "by lack of sexual opportunities." Those famous men who are interviewed, Anthony Eden and Pierre Mendes-France in particular, speak more of the times than of great events. Mendes-France, recalling his escape from prison, is reminded of the modesty of a young woman whose boyfriend propositioned her as they stood beneath the prison wall from which he was about to jump. She took a long time deciding, he thought. Finally she decided, they left, and he jumped.

Marshall Petain, the aging hero of Verdun, plays a special role in this version of French history. Though he led his country into the Armistice, he became a symbol of a new honor that France hoped would come to her in the new Europe. More pitiful and disturbing than the film's review of the Nazi's lightning defeat of France is its exposure of the French trying to rebuild, their self-esteem by embracing Nazi doctrines of race purity and ultra-nationalism.

Petain becomes a somewhat benign version of Hitler, showing up in newsreels, on innumerable posters, and in the rhetoric of nationalist speakers. In retrospect, Petain is recognized to have been a symbol of safety and accomodation. So many wanted a way out, and Petain was acceptable as an old man who couldn't harm anyone. The film's critique of him is personal--he was very much a defeatist--but it holds him as symbol, not scapegoat. The Sorrow's shame is collective.


HOLDING OUR ATTENTION all night--to say nothing of our interest--represents a nearly impossible feat, yet director Marcel Ophuls has handled his problems masterfully. The Sorrow is very, very long and emotionally draining, but it is not too long. Its straight-forward style allows the simple yet compelling themes of the people to come through. Recognizing the special difficulties of filming interviews. Ophuls keeps his camera moving, frequently setting the interview in motion: several take place in moving cars, others out in the French countryside. The setting reflects the speaker. The Graves brothers walk about their farm: Verdier is surrounded by his family: Anthony Edea sits in the chateau where he and Churchill learned of France's impending surrender.

By his unobtrusiveness and careful editing Ophuls has focused and reinforced the power of The Sorrow's unadorned recollections. Following a natural yet artistically complex design. Ophuls carefully makes certain that we don't notice the film's perfect construction. Rhythms of interiors and outdoor shots, monologues and group conversation, punctuated by 1940's newsreels keep this basically static film in motion.

To avoid the tedium of subtitles and the artificiality of dubbing. Ophuls uses a translator's technique. The speaker begins then is faded down, and his English "voice" translated with full inflection and character. Newsreels are sub-titled; so are the Englishmen. Anthony Eden is interviewed in both French and English. The subtitles help as a change in tempo, and besides, dubbing Lord Avon would be less charming than listening to his English-accented French.

Ophuls builds towards a particular topic so that both the content and the speakers are illuminated. The sense of the collapse grows; from the newspaper headlines, to Mendes-France's account of becoming a political scapegoat, to a former French soldier's remembered sense of bewilderment, to the reactions of the Germans, to the recollections of the citizens of Clermont-Ferrand, culminating in the newsreel of Marshall Petain 'offering his person' to France as he surrenders her to Germany. As the scratched words of the newsreel play on. Ophuls alternates between the aging Frenchmen of the present to the faces of the past.


THE MOVIE EXISTS predominantly in the past tense. Ophuls made the film in 1969 for French television and filled it with over forty interviews of those who remembered the Occupation. (The French government refused to show it, and it's played to packed houses in Paris ever since its release in 1970). For these people the blood passed under the bridge thirty years ago. The Sorrow is old faces and knarled hands, voices mellowed by survival and passed time. But the words of the old people describing thirty years ago carry an intense and wretched immediacy.

Many remember, some have forgotten--or rather, have chosen to forget. Messieurs Danton and Dionnet no longer recall what happened when a student suddenly disappeared or his parents were denounced. It is all very vague. "What of the commemorative plaque on the school wall?" Ophuls asks. "Did you know those students?" That's for the '14-'18 war, they think. The camera turns to the list of students killed in World War II. Marcel Vendier, the pharmacist, admits he never before talked of the war with his children because he was too busy making a living.

Some have forgotten more than the experience. Helmuth Tausend still believes that Alsace is part of Germany. Conte de Chambrun maintains that his father-in-law, Pierre Laval, was the savior of France. While Premier of unoccupied France, Laval once headlined the newspaper he owned: "Laval Wants a German Victory." One of the Resistance fighters still believes that his Communist compatriots fought because their allegiance was to Russia.

Emile Couladon, Colonel "Gaspar", relatesnow customers will come into his store and claim to have been in the Resistance. As local head of the Resistance, Couladon knows they are deluding themselves, but what the hell, and challenging them would hurt business. Some of the citizens of Clermont-Ferrand said that they saw no Germans in their town in 1942. There were.

Some forget almost immediately. Maurice Chevalier is shown collaborating, then denying all in 1946. In general the liberated French avenged themselves on the scapegoats they created, especially women who had been with German soldiers. Yet overwhelmingly they had been apathetic to the cause of the Resistance. Madame Solange's story of her persecution in the first weeks after the Liberation serves as an awful reminder of human cruelty's adaptability. Newsreels show the French applauding on one side then three years later the other--with equal vehemence.


WHILE THE SORROW'S over-all portrait of the French is bleak, many people are worthy of respect. Some are heroes. Counter to the accepted wisdom, the film suggests that these are not great men, but those who knew they must do something and did. Colonel "Gaspar" explains that he didn't like the Germans eating French beef when he had none, Emmanuel D' Astier de la Vigerie merely that he had to do something, and the same with the Grave brothers. Denis Rake, an English secret agent, very simply states that as a homosexual he wanted to prove that he could do what other men were supposed to do. "I really don't know...It was my duty if I could help, that's all."

The men of the Resistance refer to themselves as black sheep, outlaws. Their neighbors treated them as such, the Graves claim. They were dismissed as terrorists, then, when the Liberation came, as profiteers. D'Asteir de la Vigerie cherishes it as the one time he lived in a classless society because they were all outside society. Grave recalls that at the first gathering of what became the Resistance, they sang "The Internationale." "We had to sing something, and the Petainists had "The Marseillaise."

The heroes of The Sorrow share a sense of personal fallibility. They understand that the Occupation was a fall from human dignity, and accept the part they played. D'Astier de la Vigerie attributes his current serenity to his constant fear during the war. Christian de la Maziere, a former French fascist, is one of the most dignified men in the film because he does not deny the truth about himself. The hero, if one has to be named, is Mendes-France, who suffered, survived, and remained human. In this history there are not great men so much as there are honest ones.


THE DOCUMENTARY'S only villain is Premier Pierre Laval. His personal behavior casts him as such in the film's context of what is ugliest about the French: their anti-Semitism. They embraced the ideology of race purity using stricter criteria than the Nuremberg laws. Newspapers blamed France's defeat on "foreign elements." Doctors used the Gestapo to rid themselves of Jewish competitors. In the cinemas films played like The Jew Suss, which warned against interbreeding. Especially distressing is a newsreel of the memorialization of France's first anti-Semitic "authority" coupled with views of a touring exhibit on how to identify Jews.

Laval's part in this tragedy is recounted by the biologist Dr. Claude Levy. The Gestapo requested a round-up of French Jews over sixteen, and in their enthusiasm the French gendarmes collected them all. The Nazis hadn't expected the children, so kept them in Paris while their parents were sent off to French concentration camps. While the bureaucracy made up its mind, Pastor Bougner appealed to Laval to evacuate the children. "It's of no importance," Laval replied. "I am practicing prophylaxis." Laval's insistence is documented by a telegram he sent. Did any of the children come back. Dr. Levy is asked.

"None of the children returned."


DEFINITION BY ANALOGY: Out of all the years that Walter Kronkite's television program The Twentieth Century chronicled the Great War, I remember only one scene. From that mass of battle strategies, grand designs, and diagrams all that remains is this: In a Nazi newsreel of the Czech occupation, as the Fuhrer's motorcade swept through masses of dutifully saluting civilians, one woman, one woman in the crowd, broke down and turned away and cried. Of the Vietnam War I think of two pictures, one of an American soldier cradling his terrified comrade in his arms, the other of a naked screaming Vietnamese child, running towards the camera, burning from napalm. And now with a clarity that is almost unendurable, Marcel Ophuls has captured through memory a portrait of war and callousness and humanity at its worst.

The Sorrow and the Pity represents the darkest side of human experience. It is not the self-aggrandizing view of the world to which Kissinger's biography of Metternich. The Meaning of History, lays claim. Nor does it depend on arrows sweeping across a map or countries drenched in different intensities of red. It does not depend on Great Men--Metternichs or Kissingers. It is people, collectively and as individual human beings. Their hopes. Their crimes. Their sorrows. The story of this one French town during this one particular nightmare pulses more deeply than the matter-of-fact recollections of pain and endurance its citizens tell. It reminds those who will listen of the atrocities committed in the name of the Noble Cause, that few will resist and most will acquiesce, then forget.

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