Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 17, 2007

The Sorrow and the Pity

Filed under: Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

Not soon after the war in Iraq began, I decided to watch “The Battle of Algiers” again to put things into historical perspective. It seems that the military brass also decided to watch it in order to get some tips on how to put down an insurgency, including how to apply the art of torture that the French excelled in. Lately the American president has been reading the new paperback edition of Alistair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962”, with an eye toward the same goal.

I wonder how many of them have also seen Marcel Ophuls’s “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a 1969 documentary on the Nazi occupation of France. I can strongly recommend this epic film to those who want to better understand the effects of an occupation but unlike Portecorvo’s masterpiece, it is decidedly pessimistic about resistance.

Although I was very familiar with Ophuls’s film by reputation, this week was the first time I actually saw it from beginning to end. Since it is 251 minutes long, it is practically necessary to watch it in chunks, especially given the intensity of the material. Some of you might be aware that Woody Allen decides to take Diane Keaton to “The Sorrow and the Pity” in “Annie Hall”, a sure sign that he is no phony. Of course, the film can be recommended despite this unfortunate association.

As should be obvious from the title of the film, Ophuls is not really about celebrating the heroism and the dedication of the Resistance. The words come from a middle-class pharmacist who tells the interviewers that “What I felt in those years was a sense of sorrow and pity”. Most of the residents of Clermont-Ferrand, a provincial city with a population of about 100,000 that the film focuses on, probably shared that view. They basically hated the occupation but had little desire to fight it. French pop singer idol Maurice Chevalier, expressed similar sentiments to an audience of French prisoners of war in 1942. Speaking for all Frenchman, he said that they only desired: “qu’on leur foute une bonne fois la paix, – to be fucking left in peace”.

Ophuls allows the French collaborators to hoist themselves on their own petards, including René de Chambrun, the aristocratic son-in-law of Vichy Prime Minister Pierre Laval, who ran the pro-Nazi government alongside WWI hero Marshal Petain. After de Chambrun assures the interviewers that no more than 5 percent of the French Jews were exterminated, they point out to him that this was not the case with those Jews who were not citizens and who were seeking refuge there. 95 percent of them died in concentration camps. But most of the rebuttal comes from Claude Lévy, a French-Jewish scientist who joined the Resistance as a teenager. He describes the Velodrome d’Hiver events of mid-July 1942, when French cops rounded up nearly 13,000 Parisian Jews, 4,051 children of them children. They were soon trucked off to Auschwitz. During the occupation, some 75,000 Jews were executed.

One of the most chilling rightwing figures interviewed in the film is Christian de la Mazière, another aristocrat like de Chambrun. He explains to the interviewers that France was so polarized between the left and the right by 1934 that anti-Bolsheviks had only one option and that was to ally with the Nazis. This was not even a “lesser evil” for de la Mazière, who describes himself as infatuated with the Nazi mystique, so much so that he joined the Waffen SS and volunteered to fight on the Russian front. Although de la Mazière offers a perfunctory disavowal of his fascist past, one gets the sense that he would have marched under the fascist banner once again if France was as polarized as it was in the 1930s.

The Communist left does not really get much of a hearing in the film, although the non-Communist Resistance fighters who are interviewed come across as real heroes. Louis and Alexis Grave are a couple of rough-hewn peasants who decide to form a detachment to fight the Germans. At their first meeting, they sing the Internationale despite the fact that are not Communists. They will not sing “La Marseilles” because it had become so discredited through its association with Vichy. Eventually a Clermont resident informed on Louis Grave and he was sent to Buchenwald. Even though he learned the identity of the informer, he decided not to take revenge. It was not in his temperament.

By contrast, Ophuls depicts the CP as being on a vendetta. After Vichy is overthrown, a CP leader is seen haranguing an audience with the need to see reactionary blood flowing in the street. The CP was of course very adept at punishing collaborators, including the women who slept with Nazi soldiers. Their heads are shaved and swastikas are painted on their face. Unfortunately, the CP was not very adept at resisting the consolidation of capitalism in France in the immediate post-WWII period, a system that would breed the contradictions that make neo-fascism a real threat in that country once again.

The most appealing of all the Resistance figures is Denis Rake, a gay British transvestite night club performer who sends messages to London over shortwave radio from his apartment in Clermont. Rake explains that as a particular kind of gay man, he never felt up to the kind of physical prowess that hand-to-hand combat required. However, his work for the underground entailed even greater risks. Rake is quite clear about who he could have relied upon for support. He says, “I was given no assistance by the French bourgeoisie but workers gave us everything we needed. Food, cigarettes and even the shirts off their backs if we’d asked.”

Marcel Ophuls was born in 1927. He is the son of Max Ophuls, the great German-Jewish director whose masterpiece is undoubtedly “Lola Montès”. The Ophuls fled Germany in 1933 and once again fled from Paris just before the Nazis arrived. According to a May 24, 2004 Guardian profile on Marcel Ophuls (he is still alive), Michael Moore regards himself as a disciple of Marcel Ophuls. Ophuls returned the compliment and said that Moore was “wonderful when he buttonholes the bad guys like Charlton Heston. So pushy! It’s hard to believe he’s not a Jew!” One can certainly see the similarity between the two directors. They are both very skilled at getting evil people to unwittingly indict themselves on camera. Despite their achievements, one might quibble about their ability to get to the roots of a system that can generate such evil, but that fault is all too common with artists, I’m afraid.

“The Sorrow and the Pity” is available from Netflix and all the other usual outlets.


  1. along with Shoah, I think the Sorrow and the Pity are the two astonishing creations of historical documentary making.

    It is a pity that most historians are so quick to write off the medium as being good only for popularisation of “real history”, when it contains the capacity to convey truths that could never be recreated on the page.

    Comment by Jack Ray — January 19, 2007 @ 1:19 am

  2. I’m not sure why you say that S and P is ‘pessimistic’ (nor for that matter why you say that the B of A is not). One at a time. As you show, the power of the Ophuls film is in its panoramic view. This leaves us plenty of space for us to decide whether we would have been resistors, collaborators, victims, perpetrators, peaceniks of whatever. We don’t have to opt for a) what Ophuls may or may not agree with or b) what any individual speaker in the film opts for. In some ways, the B of A is more problematic. By showing how efficient and powerful the French colonists are, it provides a blueprint for the suppression of liberation movements.

    The Communist role in the resistance is indeed a fascinating matter, not least because during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact, the leadership opposed resisting the Nazis. This left many Communists bewildered and amazed, some of whom began minor acts of resistance anyway, particularly in Limousin in central-west France under the leadership of a guy called Gingouin. Needless to say, after the war, the CP got its revenge and he was expelled from the party. He stayed a socialist till the day he died just a couple of years ago. In the nineties the CP apologised to him!

    re: removal of Jews from France, yes 95% of foreign born Jews were removed but it should be remembered that out of some 300,000 Jews in toto, it was these 75-76,000 who died. Given that the Germans did in the end occupy the whole of France, the survival rate is amazing. Hungary and Poland give a completely different picture.

    Comment by Michael Rosen — January 21, 2007 @ 8:17 am

  3. Moore is a ‘disciple’ of Ophuls like Dan Brown is of Chuacer; they both write in the English language, with otherwise little comparison. A quick read of ‘Is Paris Burning’ on the various competing factions during the liberation will make you rather glad O. did not dig up more on the behavior of the communist leaders, not a pretty sight . . .

    Comment by jill r — January 2, 2009 @ 2:05 am

  4. The Maurice Chevalier song was actually written in late 1939. It was a very popular song celebrating the French army, a song about the French resolving their political differences and winning the war again, defeating the Germans again so that they could be finally ‘fucking left in peace’.
    So maybe you didn’t get the terrible irony of watching Chevalier singing it to a bunch of French war prisoners in 1942… ‘Humiliating’ is the word that springs to mind.

    Regards from France

    Comment by Arnaud — April 15, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

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