As part of the TPM Book List I’m going to tell you about a legendary documentary that’s just been re-released. It’s called The Sorrow and the Pity. And it’s simply one of the most exquisite and powerful pieces of film-making or chronicling of past events that I have ever seen. For almost thirty years it was almost impossible to find a copy of it. But now it’s out on DVD.
I’m going to discuss it as part of a series of posts. But let me now get the ball rolling with a brief description.
First some cautions. This isn’t a Mike Myers movie or a feel-good Ken Burns flick. S&P runs more than four hours long (Run Time: 260 minutes); it’s in black and white; and it’s in French (and German) with subtitles. It’s a movie made for DVD since it’s really best watched in a couple sittings. Still, it’s wrenching, engrossing and, like all really profound art, watching it makes you more deeply human. (The Times called it “The fastest four and a half hours in the history of cinema.”) It’s three or four times better than any other documentary and almost every other film I’ve ever seen.
The Sorrow and the Pity is about the Nazi occupation of France, particularly in one city, Clermont-Ferrand, in the part of France governed by the collaborationist Vichy Regime. At the broadest level the movie explains that for all the myth-making about the Resistance, and real heroes who participated in it, most French citizens were deeply collaborationist. Perhaps it’s better to say that they were cowardly, afraid, willing to let almost anything happen if they themselves could remain safe.
But that only scratches the surface of the story.
More soon about Marcel Ophuls, the director of the movie; the notorious reference to The Sorrow and the Pity in Annie Hall; the shame of Maurice Chevalier; and how the movie’s message about how weak and fearful people are turns out to be remarkably, perversely powerful, inspiring, and redeeming.