The Sorrow and the Pity

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The Sorrow and the Pity
A black and white movie poster of an eye with a single teardrop falling from it, and a tiny swastika near the pupil.
Movie poster
FrenchLe Chagrin et la Pitié
Directed byMarcel Ophuls
Written by
  • Marcel Ophuls
  • André Harris
Produced by
  • Alain de Sedouy
  • André Harris
Release date
  • 18 September 1969 (1969-September-18)
Running time
251 minutes
West Germany

The Sorrow and the Pity (French: Le Chagrin et la Pitié) is a two-part 1969 documentary film by Marcel Ophuls about the collaboration between the Vichy government and Nazi Germany during World War II. The film uses interviews with a German officer, collaborators, and resistance fighters from Clermont-Ferrand. They comment on the nature of and reasons for collaboration, including antisemitism, Anglophobia, fear of Bolsheviks and Soviet invasion, and the desire for power.

The title comes from a comment by interviewee Marcel Verdier, a pharmacist in Montferrat, Isère, who says "the two emotions I experienced the most [during the Nazi occupation] were sorrow and pity".


Part one of the film, The Collapse, has an extended interview with Pierre Mendès France. He was jailed by the Vichy government on trumped-up charges of desertion after leaving France on the SS Le Masilia, together with Pierre Viénot [fr], Jean Zay, and Alex Wiltzer [fr], in an attempt to rejoin his military unit which had moved to Morocco. But Mendès France escaped from jail to join Charles de Gaulle's forces operating out of England, and later served as prime minister of France for eight months from 1954 to 1955.

A middle-aged man sitting in the dock of a courtroom
Jewish film entrepreneur Bernard Natan on trial in France for fraud c. 1936; screenshot from part 1, The Collapse

Part two, The Choice, revolves around Christian de la Mazière, who is something of a counterpoint to Mendès France. Whereas Mendès France was a French Jewish political figure who joined the Resistance, de la Mazière, an aristocrat who embraced Fascism, was one of 7,000 French youth to fight on the Eastern Front wearing German uniforms.

The film shows the French people's response to occupation as heroic, pitiable, and monstrous—sometimes all at once. The postwar humiliation of the women who served (or were married to) German soldiers perhaps gives the strongest mix of all three. Maurice Chevalier's "Sweepin' the Clouds Away" is the theme song of the film. He was a popular entertainer with the German occupation force.


Interviews were conducted by Ophuls, André Harris or George Bidault, with:[1]

Archival footage[edit]

Archival footage is interwoven through the film, featuring historical figures including:


Initially commissioned by French government-owned television to create a two part made for TV documentary,[3][when?] the film was banned after Ophuls submitted it to the studio that hired him.[4]

Ophuls shot his film over a two-year period, gathering about 50 hours of potentially usable material to edit.[5] The title is drawn from a scene in which a young woman asks her grandfather, a pharmacist, what he felt during the Occupation, and the somber answer is just two stark emotions.[6]


The film "had its world premiere in Germany."[3][when?] This film was first shown on French television in 1981[4] after being banned[7] from that medium for years. In 1969, after the director submitted the film to the studio that hired him, the network head "told a government committee that the film 'destroys myths that the people of France still need'".[4] Frederick Busi suggests that this was because of how uncomfortable it is to face the reality of collaborationism. Writing of French conservative establishment groups' reactions to the film, "They, too, preferred that little be said about their role, and in some ways this reluctance is more significant than that of the extremists, since they represent so large a segment of society and mainly dominate contemporary politics."[3] It is frequently assumed that the reason was French reluctance to admit the facts of French history. While this may have been a factor, the principal mover in the decision was Simone Veil, a Jewish inmate of Auschwitz who became a minister and the first president of the European Parliament, on the grounds that the film presented too one-sided a view.[8][clarification needed]

The first DVD release of the film in France came in November 2011.[6] In the UK, home media releases include a 2017 DVD and Blu-Ray from Arrow Academy which, among its extra content, features a lengthy 2004 interview with Ophuls by Ian Christie.[9]


The candid approach of The Sorrow and the Pity shone a spotlight on antisemitism in France and disputed the idealized collective memory of the nation at large.[10][11] In 2001, Richard Trank, a documentarian of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, described it as "a film about morality that explores the role of ordinary people".[7]

In France, after its release, communists, socialists, and "independent groups" treated the film favorably; however, the far right disapproved on account of the director's background.[3] Some French critics denounced the film as unpatriotic.[4] The film has also been criticized for being too selective and that the director was "too close to the events portrayed to provide an objective study of the period."[3][12]

In the United States, Time magazine gave a positive review of the film, and wrote that Marcel Ophuls "tries to puncture the bourgeois myth—or protectively askew memory—that allows France generally to act as if hardly any Frenchmen collaborated with the Germans."[13] Critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four, and praised the depth and complexity of its human portraiture, which somehow still manages to avoid any abstraction of collaboration.[5]

Retrospectively, critical appraisals have become ever more lavish. Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2000, US film critic Kenneth Turan called it a "monumental" work, and "one of the most potent documentaries ever made".[14] The Arts Desk (UK) called it simply "the greatest documentary ever made about France during the Second World War".[9]


In France, the film won the Grand Prize of the Dinard Festival [fr].[3][when?]

In the United States, the film was nominated for an Academy Award in 1971 for Best Documentary Feature.[15][16][17] In the same year, it received a special award by the National Society of Film Critics,[18] "which called it 'a film of extraordinary public interest and distinction'."[7] In 1972, it was named Best Foreign Language Film by the U.S. National Board of Review.[19]

In the UK, it won the 1972 BAFTA award for Best Foreign TV Programme.[20]

In popular culture[edit]

Woody Allen's film Annie Hall (1977) references The Sorrow and the Pity as a plot device. Film critic Donald Liebenson explains: "In one of the film's signature scenes, Alvy Singer (Allen) suggests he and Annie (Diane Keaton) go see the film. 'I'm not in the mood to see a four-hour documentary on Nazis,' Annie protests. In the film's poignant conclusion, Alvy runs into Annie as she is taking a date to see the film, which Alvy counts as 'a personal triumph'."[7][21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)". British Film Institute. Retrieved November 3, 2018.
  2. ^ "The Sorrow and the Pity (1971)". All Movie. Retrieved November 3, 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Busi, Frederick (Winter 1973). "Marcel Ophuls and the Sorrow and the Pity". The Massachusetts Review. 14 (1): 177–186. JSTOR 25088330.
  4. ^ a b c d Jeffries, Stuart (January 22, 2004). "A nation shamed: Why does France keep making films that glorify the Resistance and gloss over the truth about collaboration?". The Guardian. Retrieved November 4, 2018.
  5. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (19 September 1972). "The Sorrow and the Pity". Archived from the original on 12 March 2017.
  6. ^ a b Neuhoff, Eric (18 November 2011). "Le Chagrin et la pitié, la France des années noires". Le Figaro (in French). Retrieved 8 July 2019.
  7. ^ a b c d Liebenson, Donald (January 19, 2001). "A Look at 'The Sorrow and the Pity' of France in World War II". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 3, 2018.
  8. ^ Simone Veil, Mémoires, Paris, 2008
  9. ^ a b Baron, Saskia (27 June 2017). "DVD/Blu-ray: The Sorrow and the Pity". The Arts Desk. Retrieved 9 July 2019.
  10. ^ Weitz, Margaret Collins (1995). Sisters in the Resistance – How Women Fought to Free France 1940–1945. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-471-19698-3.
  11. ^ Greene, Naomi (1999). Landscapes of Loss: The National Past in Postwar French Cinema. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. pp. 69–73. ISBN 978-0-691-00475-4.
  12. ^ Hoffman, Stanley (1972). "On 'The Sorrow and the Pity'". Commentary. Retrieved November 3, 2018.
  13. ^ "TIME magazine: Truth and Consequences". Time. 1972-03-27. Archived from the original on March 1, 2009. Retrieved 2012-08-27.
  14. ^ Turan, Kenneth (July 7, 2000). "'Sorrow and the Pity' Still Potent, Powerful". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 9 July 2019.
  15. ^ "Le Chagrin et la Pitie - Cast, Crew, Director and Awards". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2009. Archived from the original on May 19, 2009. Retrieved November 12, 2008. Win Special Award - 1972 New York Film Critics Circle Best Foreign Film - 1972 National Board of Review Nomination Best Documentary Feature - 1971 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
  16. ^ "The Official Academy Awards Database". Archived from the original on 2013-04-15. Retrieved November 3, 2018.
  17. ^ Petrakis, John (July 14, 2000). "'Sorrow' a Complete Look at how the French Dealt with the Nazis". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved November 3, 2018.
  18. ^ "Past Awards". 2009. Retrieved 6 July 2019.
  19. ^ "1972 Award Winners". National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. 2019. Retrieved 6 July 2019.
  20. ^ "The Sorrow and the Pity". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 9 July 2019.
  21. ^ "Annie Hall Film Script". Retrieved 2015-01-27.

External links[edit]