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The Sorrow and the Pity

For over 30 years now, Marcel Ophuls has served as Europe's guilty conscience. His epic documentaries, set during various flash points of the 20th century ' World War II, Northern Ireland, the Berlin Wall, Bosnia ' have scraped away at the truths we held to be self-evident, like a dog clearing the meat and gristle off a bone. But in three decades of hauling his camera over Europe's war-torn lands, Ophuls has never matched the impact of his first feature documentary, 1970's The Sorrow and the Pity. Subtitled "The Chronicle of a French City Under the Occupation," this 4-hour film, which combines formal interviews with historical footage, is actually closer to a court trial, with Ophuls serving as lawyer for both the prosecution and the defense. Witnesses are called, Exhibit A gives way to Exhibit B, and when it's all over, the myth of France's heroic resistance to the Nazis during World War II has been shattered.

Charles De Gaulle had founded both his political career and France's Fifth Republic on that very myth, of course. But after the turbulent events of May 1968, the time was ripe for another look at La Resistance. So Ophuls went to work, zeroing in on Clermont-Ferrand, a small industrial town near Vichy, the headquarters for Marshal PÃtain's collaborationist regime. Ophuls interviewed aristocrats, peasants and members of the bourgeoisie. He interviewed collaborators, resisters and l'attentisme ' i.e., those who adopted a wait-and-see attitude. And, outside Clermont-Ferrand, he interviewed some of the major political figures of the time: Pierre MendÃs-France, Anthony Eden and Albert Speer, among others. The result ' especially when combined with the historical footage, which can either reinforce or subvert what someone has just said ' is a film that seems at once objective and subjective, an oral history and a historical essay, an inkblot in the Rorschach test of France's collective memory.

Ophuls was particularly interested in that point where the personal meets the political, where history gives way to all the stories we tell ourselves. Many of the stories are fascinating ' the farmer who's never considered seeking revenge on the fellow villager whose denunciation got him sent to Buchenwald, for example, or the British gay man who, posing as a Belgian, became a spy as a way of proving to himself that he was as courageous as anyone else. What's surprising about the film, though, is that even the mundane stories are fascinating ' for example, the pharmacist who just kind of slid through the war and whose favorite moment during the Occupation, therefore, was the reopening of hunting season in 1942. It becomes surprisingly difficult to condemn anyone as the film drags on, explanations blurring into justifications blurring into rationalizations blurring into outright lies. Finally, one takes refuge in Jean Renoir's famous line, "Everybody has his reasons."

But to understand is not to avoid taking sides, and Ophuls clearly sides with those who resisted. It's just that he doesn't think there were nearly as many resisters as the French, in later years, wanted to believe there'd been. Which is one of the reasons The Sorrow and the Pity was kept off French TV for 10 years. ("Certain myths must not be destroyed," Ophuls was told.) What's interesting about the film's initial reception, in retrospect, was its multifariousness. A true inkblot, it was both praised and condemned by the right and the left. Today, another generation after the events it describes, the documentary has taken its place alongside such monuments of Holocaust cinema as Alain Resnais' Night and Fog and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. And although we may not have quite the attention spans we had 30 years ago, who would argue that the film isn't as relevant as ever, what with the rise of neo-Nazism and Holocaust denial, not to mention the reappearance of genocide in the former Yugoslavia?

The Sorrow and the Pity is being shown at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 22, at 4070 Vilas Hall as part of Holocaust Remembrance Week. And the newly released 35 mm print is subtitled instead of dubbed. I actually liked the old dubbed version, which, however distorted, at least allowed us to spend most of our time studying the interviewees' faces and surroundings. And, having failed in my quest to acquire the subtitled version from Four Star (I thought I was the only one who held on to videos well past the due date), I can only speculate what it's like to wrestle with subtitles for 4 hours. Anyway, bring your reading glasses.

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