I know that not everybody likes documentaries. In particular, not everybody likes four-hour long documentaries spanning two DVDs. And yet, for those people interested in history, I would highly recommend The Sorrow and the Pity (Le Chagrin et la Pitie). This sprawling work (it’s worth noting that even though it’s on two discs, Netflix considers both discs to be one film and sends them both simultaneously) paints a highly informative, moving portrait of life in occupied France during WWII. No doubt about it, the film is long. sorrow2.jpgFurthermore, to somebody like myself who doesn’t know much about the history of occupied France, there were some portions describing incidents I had never heard of where I found myself quite lost (this was particularly true of the first disc). Yet, these are the only possible shortcomings I can think of. Filmmaker Marcel Ophuls masterfully interweaves archival footage with retrospective interviews to create a historic piece that truly brings the past to life. The resulting, complex tapestry of viewpoints (Ophuls interviews former aristocrats, working people, German soldiers, French Resistance fighters, pro-German French citizens, policymakers, you name it) is as revealing as it is comprehensive.

My first reaction to the film was mainly just surprise. When I think of France during WWII, I typically think of the Resistance fighters – brave, daring patriots like those so often portrayed in 40s era films like Casablanca. The reality, however, was of course quite a bit more complex, as the documentary shows that there was actually a fair amount of pro-German sentiment (along with its accompanying anti-Semitism) in France during the War, particularly during the early years. France was actually the only occupied country that participated in a cooperative program with Germany, sending commuting workers over the border in work-programs, passing cooperative laws, etc. Even as the War progressed and the Resistance movement picked up, there were still many people in France who were either apathetic or even welcoming to the German occupation, including many people who turned in known Resistance fighters. Despite the fact that this was not an uncommon reaction, there nonetheless was a widespread, violent backlash by the French against suspected German sympathizers once the War was over. In fact, it is stories describing this backlash of French against their own countrymen (rather than those tales describing the earlier acts of occupying German soldiers) that are the most ghastly in the film.

In all the hours of interviews, it’s interesting that those being interviewed some 25 years or so after the fact by and large seem rather calm and detached from the events they are remembering. And yet, ironically, it’s this detachment that gives the documentarysorrow.jpg its emotional punch. After hearing these level-headed people so calmly describing such horrific events from their past, it slowly sinks in that so many lives were affected by a war waged not by people, so much, as ideologies. Hearing first-hand accounts of everyday people getting swept up in ideological fervor – movements that they would later regret participating in – is sobering. It’s the main strength of The Sorrow and the Pity. It makes one realize that so many people were caught up in something much bigger than themselves. And, in turn, the film simultaneously makes these much-bigger ideologies suddenly appear not so big and important at all, once one compares them to all the lives that were turned upside down and wasted as a result.