The Sorrow and the Pity is a documentary, initially released in 1969, which focusses on the relationship between France and Germany during the Second World War, specifically the Nazi occupation of the French city of Clermont-Ferrand. However, that’s not what this review is very much about.
I’ve recently discovered I’m a terribly person. It’s something I’ve long suspected, but it really hit home a few days ago when I tried to watch this film (which is over four hours long, conveniently split into two parts) and I realised that I have pretty much no interest in documentaries. This is something of a problem, and not just because I’ve still got a fair few docs left to cross off my various lists, at least one of which will hopefully be jettisoned by the rapidly approaching end of this year (There are just 19 days left of this year, and I’m planning to watch at least fifteen films that all need reviewing, with an additional five reviews still pending at the time of writing, plus an end-of-year review and at least one piece written for another site. And oh yeah, fucking Christmas is in there too. Shouldn’t I just be watching Elf, Love Actually, Muppet Christmas Carol and Christmas Vacation on repeat right about now?). No, the problem with me not liking documentaries is I feel they’re something I really should like, considering they’re about the real world, often involve interesting subject matters and could benefit my everyday existence.
So why don’t I like them? Well, I brought this up on the most recent Lambcast episode on Die Hard 2 (which, alas, isn’t a documentary). I informed the guests on that show that I’d seen docs like Shoah, Hotel Terminus and Hoop Dreams, and I hadn’t really liked any of them. I didn’t use the term “enjoyed,” because what kind of decent person would enjoy Shoah? I just found them all really hard to get through, and the general consensus was that I hadn’t seen any good ones. I’ve since checked back and discovered I’d also seen Man on Wire and Anvil! The Story of Anvil, and whilst I remember liking them a little more, I didn’t exactly love them, and the one I preferred (Man on Wire) was better because it was less like a typical documentary, and more like a heist movie, which I’m predisposed to liking anyway. I’ve been recommended others – films like The Thin Blue Line and The Act of Killing, both of which are on the 1001 List and both of which will be watched next year – but I’m apprehensive that the same won’t happen again.
When watching them, I always feel like I should be taking notes in preparation for an exam, and that’s never more the case than when watching something as historically important as the events detailed in The Sorrow and the Pity. I find it increasing hard to pay attention and stay focussed on them, regularly forget who people are from clip to clip – which is very annoying when snippets from the same interview are peppered throughout the film, as I can’t recall who this person is from the start of the interview 20 minutes ago, and I’m often at a loss as to what they’re talking about anyway. I’m hesitant to portion any of this blame towards the film and its makers. I had the same issue with the aforementioned Shoah, and in Ophüls’ other WW2 documentary Hotel Terminus as well, so this is most likely a fault within my inner workings than anything else. That being said, it was still a reason behind why I couldn’t get into this film.
Something I’m also picking up on (and it’s something I probably should have realised before now) is that it seems almost impossible to produce an unbiased documentary. Obviously, an anti-Nazi slant is almost a given, hence why they remain one of the most popular villains in general non-fiction films, but here instead of just documenting what is going on, there are many scenes wherein Ophüls is clearly trying to enforce some blame onto someone he clearly believes to be at fault, going so far as to cross examine and berate his interviewees into submission. One of the most aggravating instances came when Ophüls was interviewing a shopkeeper. Back during the Nazi occupation of his town, many shops owned and run by Jewish families were destroyed or at least boycotted. The man being interviewed has the surname Klein, which could easily be construed as being of Jewish descent, though in this example that is not the case. One of his brothers was even killed, based on this belief. This caused Klein and his surviving relatives to post an advert in a newspaper proclaiming they were “100% French”, in order to prevent any further harm coming towards them. I personally have no problem with this, as the Kleins were not making any disparaging remarks towards anyone of Jewish origin, nor were they attempting to cause anyone any harm, they were simply doing what was necessary to ensure the survival of themselves and their business. You could argue that they weren’t helping the situation, but I believe there to be far worse crimes committed during that conflict that could have been documented instead. Ophüls however seems intent on badgering Klein until the guy breaks down and apologises to anyone who’ll listen, but fortunately this doesn’t happen, and Ophüls moves on, his failure unremarked upon.
There are however some moments of genuine interest here, such as the townspeople being encouraged to breed rabbits for food (I did not enjoy watching rabbits being skinned however, because we have two as pets). We see a child playing with an adorable pet rabbit, and the next scene shows a child wearing a familiar-looking fluffy hood, presumably made from rabbit fur. Also, I hadn’t considered what would happen when the occupying German soldiers made their moves on the local French girls, and more specifically what would happen to said girls after Germany were defeated. As it turns out, nothing good, with the more fortunate ones being dragged to the centre of town and having their heads shaved in public by the local vet. That’s nothing compared to what happened to the woman accused of denouncing a French official to the Gestapo, whose story is genuinely sickening.
Something I absolutely hate seeing, and have never had a desire to see, is the moment at which life ends. I’d known it was coming in Gimme Shelter, and looked away accordingly. I didn’t know it was coming here, when we see footage from a firing squad, when two men – I’m not sure who they were – were shot. We see it all, with no warning, and that’s something I can never un-see. Also, some of the descriptions of things that happened are far sicker than anything from any Saw film – in one instance, people had their eyes ripped out, bugs were put into the holes and the sockets were sewn up. I don’t know what to do with that information, other than feel simultaneously furious and nauseated, so thanks, I guess?
Even if I liked documentaries, I don’t know if I’d recommend this. It feels important, and tells stories with a certain historical importance, but the insistent presence of Ophüls and his infuriating interrogation style was very off-putting. Creating the film was an achievement, sure, but it’s not one I’m grateful to have experienced.
Choose Life 5/10
Alvy Singer will be watching it again after his next breakup.
That was literally my only reference before watching this film.