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Sorrow and the Pity: "greatest documentary ever"

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  • Sorrow and the Pity: "greatest documentary ever"

    This Second World War film is the greatest documentary ever made
    by Simon Heffer


    TELEGRAPH - 23 NOVEMBER 2019


    A scene from Marcel Ophuls's Le chagrin et la pitié (1969)
    CREDIT: NORDDEUTSCHER RUNDFUNK/KOBAL/REX

    A French documentary leaves Simon Heffer awe-struck, and a nation’s self-serving myths in ruins

    Years ago, I was about to switch off the television when the next programme started; a documentary study of occupied France during the Second World War, shot in black and white. Four and a half hours later, it finished, leaving me astonished, in awe and convinced that the film I had just seen, Marcel Ophüls' Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity), was a masterpiece. Having re-watched it half a dozen times since, I would argue that it is the greatest documentary ever made.

    Ophuls was commissioned to make the film in 1967, for broadcast on TV around the 25th anniversary of the Liberation, in 1969. When, after two years of filming, he showed the material to network executives, they were horrified and refused to screen it.

    France had been difficult to unite after the Germans were thrown out, because of the extent of collaboration; scores were settled in an often unjust and primitive fashion; the Fifties had been a time of political turbulence, calmed only by the establishment of a new republic under the authoritarian rule of Charles de Gaulle.

    But his France was unified around a series of myths, namely: that the French had worked to liberate themselves; that collaboration had been kept to a minimum; that there had been scant participation in the genocide of the Jews; and that the Nazis’ puppet regime based in Vichy was little more than a bad dream. In exploding those myths, Le Chagrin et la Pitié caused outrage.

    Shown in cinemas in Germany, Britain and America in the early Seventies, the film was nominated for an Oscar in 1972: French critics who saw it were dumbfounded. When it was eventually broadcast on French television in 1981, it still provoked anger.

    Ophuls’s methods were simple. He focused on Clermont-Ferrand, near Vichy and in the zone administered by Pétain and his sidekick Laval, interviewing mainly local people. There are genuine resistants who describe the wicked acts of their occupiers; but there are too many others who did little more than turn the
    proverbial blind eye.


    Le générale de Gaulle, here speaking in 1946, was integral to France's post-war recovery
    CREDIT: HULTON ARCHIVE

    In perhaps the film’s most shocking scene, two teachers, 25 or 26 years after the event, become vague about their memories of the day in 1942 when they went to school and found all the Jewish boys had disappeared. As if the two events were not connected, one observes that several of those missing boys now had streets named after them.

    There is an interview with a shopkeeper who regards his main achievement of the war as managing to convince his fellow French that although his name was Klein, he was not Jewish. There is a long conversation with Christian de la Mazière, an aristocrat who decided to join the Charlemagne division of the Waffen SS to fight for Hitler. And, perhaps most nauseating of all, is le comte de Chambrun, Laval’s son-in-law, who does his best to convince his interlocutors that France had been lucky to have this arch-collaborator as its prime minister.

    It is not just the interviewing that is superb, the camerawork is brilliant, too. The director is sure to capture the shifty, sideways glances of Klein and Chambrun as they try to justify themselves, and the casualness of Mazière – looking louche in dark glasses as he puts his own disgrace down to the folly of youth.

    Ophuls also lined up the greats to recall these events: notably Anthony Eden, speaking elegant, interestingly accented French, and Pierre Mendès France, the former French prime minister, a Jew whom Vichy sought to try on trumped-up charges of desertion.

    By the end of his film, the myths are in ruins; and Ophuls’s last joke is to show a clip of Maurice Chevalier explaining, entirely dishonestly, to an anglophone audience how he had not collaborated. Chevalier, like too many others in this film, got away with it in the way that the résistants often did not. As he sings Sweepin’ the Clouds Away, one recalls the ease with which a whole nation went into denial only, eventually, to be forced out of it by a courageous film-maker.
    Last edited by Maurice; 28th November 2019, 07:55 AM.

  • #2
    Sounds brilliant! I would love to watch this.

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