Every country has its political myths. In Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity), however, film-makers Marcel Ophuls and André Harris have prepared a mild but surprisingly effective antidote to one of the most highly cherished political myths of Gaullist France—the myth of la résistance. To a young, postwar generation of Frenchmen nourished on the edifying storybook image of occupied France as a network of maquisards rallying unanimously to the famous Appeal from London of General DeGaulle, it may come as a surprise to learn from Le Chagrin et la Pitié that this was not exactly the way it all happened; that in actual fact very few people heard DeGaulle’s broadcast; that De Gaulle himself had very little popular following at that time; that collaboration with the Nazis was far more characteristic of the French nation as a whole than résistance; and, finally, that by far the greatest percentage of active résistants came from the ranks of the French Communist Party.
This is hardly the image the Gaullist regimes in postwar France have tried to cultivate. Consequently, although Le Chagrin et la Pitié was coproduced by the state-owned French television (along with the state-owned West German and Swiss networks), the film has been denied a television screening in France. (It has been shown on West German and Swiss TV.) According to Le Monde, the decision to keep the film off French TV screens was taken by none other than Jacques Chaban-Delmas, prime minister under Pompidou, who passed on his orders directly to the ORTF television administration.
Moreover, in spite of having obtained first prize at the 1970 Festival of French-Speaking Films at Dinard, Le Chagrin et la Pitié had trouble making its way into the commercial cinema circuit in France. Initially, it was booked only into two small Paris theaters frequented almost exclusively by students. And when left-wing newspapers began publicizing the fact that the government had stepped in to prevent the film’s being shown on television, the conservative newspapers tried to pass off the film as just another wild-eyed manifestation of misguided militancy, a by-product of May 1968.
In fact, however, Le Chagrin et la Pitié is anything but a militant film. Rather, it is a low-keyed, even bland, “liberal” examination of the Nazi Occupation and the French collaborationist regime of Maréchal Pétain. Letting the extensive interview material and documentary footage speak pretty much for itself, film-makers Ophuls (incidentally, Marcel is the son of Max Ophuls) and Harris seem to have scrupulously avoided any hint of political editorializing. And in this they have succeeded so well that, aside from the prominence given to Pierre Mendès-France’s pointed observations and personal reminiscences, the film seems remarkably devoid of any political partis pris.
What is ultimately most remarkable, then, about Le Chagrin et la Pitié is simply that such a politically vacuous film should be capable of stirring up such big political waves. (I even heard expressions of high-level concern in England that the BBC’s television screening of the film in the fall of 1971 was likely to be considered such a provocative act toward France that it might jeopardize Britain’s hopes of gaining entry into the European Common Market.)
As for the problem of censorship in France, the most significant aspect of the Pompidou government’s suppression of this film is simply the revelation that even after DeGaulle not even a subdued, reflective film like Le Chagrin et la Pitié is allowed to be shown widely to the French people. (Incidentally, it joins a long list of films—including La Religieuse, Le Gai Savoir, The Battle of Algiers, and Les Cadets de Saumur, to name only a few—which have been kept off the television and movie screens of France, either by direct government intervention or through pressure exerted on the government and the commercial movie exhibitors by right-wing lobbyists and agitators.)
Subtitled “Chronicle of a French Town under the Occupation,” Le Chagrin et la Pitié focuses primarily on the occupation of the medium-sized provincial city of Clermont-Ferrand in the mountainous heartland of the French Massif Centrale, a locale chosen both for its proximity to Vichy (the capital of occupied France under the regime of Pétain) and for its importance as a center of underground resistance.
The choice of Clermont-Ferrand, however, is not without serious repercussions. Many French commentators have pointed out that this region is not at all representative of France as a whole; that, in particular, Communist Party membership has always been disproportionately small in this traditionally anti-Communist region; and that, consequently, unlike most other parts of France where the resistance was organized and carried out largely by Communist Party members, Clermont-Ferrand’s resistance was organized by an aristocrat, Emmanuel D’Astier de la Vigerie, and contained a much smaller Communist participation than was normally the case throughout France.
The fact that this discrepancy is acknowledged in the film, it is argued, does not in any way correct or excuse the distorted picture of the phenomenon of resistance that the choice of Clermont-Ferrand entails. Moreover, it is particularly inexcusable that with the exception of a few brief remarks by Communist Party chief Jacques Duclos, the Communist role in the resistance is simply mentioned in passing. And on one of the few occasions when it is brought up, the Communists are disparaged as “peu recommendables” by a former Clermont résistant who declares himself a monarchist.
If the film’s perspective on the résistance is vague and fuzzy, its perspective on the phenomenon of collaboration is much sharper and clearer. And the portrait that emerges is especially rich since the collaboration is presented from the points of view of both the occupiers and the occupied. Throughout the film considerable attention is given to the reminiscences of the German occupiers. In fact, Le Chagrin et la Pitié begins with the edifying discourse of one Helmuth Tausend, former commanding officer of the occupying German forces in Clermont-Ferrand, as he delivers an extemporaneous little speech to his family on the occasion of the wedding of one of his children. And although the complacent, rationalizing “clear conscience” of the “man who simply followed orders” is transparent—and his capacity for arrogant self-righteousness downright objectionable—nonetheless, the film reveals enough striking parallels in the attitudes of the French collaborators to suggest that the two sides of the collaboration were really only two sides of the same coin . . . and that fascism was the common currency of both the Germans and the French.
Undoubtedly the most remarkable moment in Le Chagrin et la Pitié is the revelation of one Christian de la Mazière, a suave, socially prominent aristocrat, who tells why in his early twenties he enlisted in the “Charlemagne” Division of the German Waffen SS —a special divison made up of some 7,000 young Frenchmen who were so won over by their occupiers that they chose to join the German army and were sent to fight on the Russian front. Mazière explains that, as an aristocrat who came from a family of French military officers, he could not help but admire the iron discipline and machine-like efficiency of the German army—so different, he emphasizes, from the sloppy and poorly trained French army!
The sight of those “blond, handsome, upright, barechested conquerors,” he admits, was awe-inspiring and irresistible. Moreover, for him and for many young men from the aristocratic milieu, the defeat of France seemed almost a “Judgment of God”— something the nation had deserved for turning away from the old aristocratic values. Acquiescing to God’s will, Mazière explains, meant joining forces with the German conquerors, who were seen to be His terrestrial agents.
And, as Mazière acknowledges, his political notions had been formed by the tremendous right-wing fear of the growing socialist sentiments of the Front Populaire movement in France and the fear of a Communist victory in the Civil War in Spain. The combination of all these factors, he concludes, made him what he was. When asked by the film-maker if the term “fascist” would be inappropriate, Mazière amiably replies, “No, not at all inappropriate. I was a fascist, a young fascist, in those days.”
But if Mazière’s case is the most remarkable expression of French fascism in the film, this is only because it is the most extreme and the most frankly acknowledged. However, there are also innumerable indications in Le Chagrin et la Pitié of a more pervasive, although more passive, brand of fascism which attracted the French bourgeoisie to the paternalistic leadership of Pétain and to the authoritarian principles of the Vichy government’s prime minister, Pierre Laval. (Incidentally, one of the most pathetic moments in the film occurs when Laval’s son-in-law, the Count of Chambrun, tries to restore the reputation of his father-in-law by telling the film-makers how kind Laval was to a man from the local village who had been held in a German concentration camp. Chambrun summons the ex-prisoner, who is now working for him as a laborer, and puts him on exhibition for the cameras, manipulating the old fellow like a puppet on a string, asking him to “tell these gentlemen all the kind things Monsieur Laval did for you”)
If the tone of the interview material tends to be exculpatory, the tone of several short films of Vichy propaganda that are included in Le Chagrin et la Pitié is strident and aggressive. Particularly revealing are the glimpses of the program organized by Georges Lamirand, Pétain’s Minister of Youth and a zealous advocate of the fullest collaboration with Nazi Germany. Footage of Lamirand’s racist, demagogic speeches to youth groups and of the militaristic youth camps he set up for French children would look right at home in Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi panegyric, Triumph of the Will
Also disconcerting is the evidence presented in Le Chagrin et la Pitié of the virulent anti-Semitism that came to the fore in France under the Vichy regime. So pervasive was this “unofficial” anti-Semitism that the names of all Jewish actors and technicians were systematically blacked out on the credits of French films shown during the Occupation. And in Clermont-Ferrand, as elsewhere in France, announcements began appearing in newspapers to the effect that such and such a merchant—one Monsieur Klein, for example—although bearing a name that could be mistaken as Jewish, did hereby assure his clientele that he was both 100 percent Aryan and 100 percent French. Finally, we are reminded by a Jewish scholar that on one infamous day in 1942, the Paris police not only carried out the occupiers’ orders to round up all Jews over sixteen years of age from the Vel d’Hiv Jewish quarter of Paris; but, in an excess of zeal (which even caused some momentary embarrassment to the German command ), the French flics also rounded up 4,000 Jewish children, forcibly separated them from their parents, and persuaded the Germans to deport them all to Nazi concentration camps.
Still another indication of the anti-Semitism that was rampant in occupied France is provided in the interview with Pierre Mendès-France, which dominates the first half of the film as Mendès-France gives a marvelously nuanced account of the troubles he encountered as a prominent Jew under the Vichy regime. Already a political figure of some stature, Mendès-France was put on trial by the Vichy government for supposedly having been a deserter when he sailed from Marseilles to Morocco to join the fighting forces of Free France, a move taken by his entire regiment. Arrested immediately upon his return to France and put on trial under extremely prejudicial circumstances, Mendès-France opened his defense with a simple statement of defiance: “I am a Jew; I am a Freemason; I am not a deserter. Let the trial begin.” Found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison, he served only a few months of the sentence before making his escape by climbing over the prison wall—an escape, he adds, which was delayed for what seemed like an eternity by the inopportune presence on the other side of the wall of an amorous soldier and his all-toohesitant girlfriend.*
Interspersed with the interview material in the opening half of Le Chagrin et la Pitié is some remarkable Nazi documentary footage depicting the debacle of the French defenders of the famed Maginot Line. One Nazi film presents long tracking shots filmed from a car as it drives past mile after mile of abandoned French vehicles lining both sides of the road—eloquent testimony to the chaos and desperation of the French retreat from the onrushing invaders. Another short propaganda film presents Hitler visiting conquered Paris at five o’clock in the morning, stepping out of his escorted jeep to climb the steps of the Church of the Madeleine, visiting the Arc de Triomphe, and receiving the Nazi salute in the early morning gloom from a contingent of Paris police.
One particularly odious piece of Nazi propaganda is a short film that depicts the conquering German army as discovering to their amazement that the great French nation, “supposedly one of the finest flowers of European civilization,” was defended by an incredible potpourri of Turks, Arabs, black Africans, and Orientals—“a rag-tag bunch of savages in French army coats”—whose exotic physiognomies are exhibited before the camera like so many specimens of prehistoric stages in the development of the blond master race.
To further round out the picture of the sad situation in the early days following the German invasion of France, Ophuls and Harris include some interesting material with Anthony Eden, whose measured comments, delivered in more than passable French, set forth the point of view of the British government in those troubled times. Of particular interest is Eden’s description of the dilemma confronting England when it was feared that France—which had not only ceased fighting but had also, against all previous agreements with her allies, signed an armistice with Germany—might deliver her naval fleet into the hands of the Nazis. Acting quickly to prevent any such eventuality, the British navy made a surprise attack on the fleet of its allies (who, it was subsequently reported, were at that moment sailing to place themselves at the disposal of the British), sinking many of the ships and effectively disabling the rest. All in all, a most inglorious chapter in the saga of the war, Eden acknowledges, but one that must be considered in light of the fact that France was the only country in occupied Europe whose “legal” government practiced a policy of collaboration with the Nazis.
In the second half of this four-and-a-half-hour film, the focus shifts from the big events and the actions of prominent individuals to the choice that confronted the ordinary man of the street in occupied France, particularly in the streets (and nearby fields) of Clermont-Ferrand. Many individuals, of course, preferred to turn their backs on the choice and pretend it wasn’t there. One bicycle-racer-turned-bar-owner tells the interviewers that the Germans couldn’t really have occupied Clermont-Ferrand or he would have seen them—and, he declares, “I never saw a single German!” Newspaper photos, however, show this bicycleracer proudly accepting a trophy from the commanding officer of the occupying German army.
For others the choice was one of which accommodation to make and which not to make. An elderly hotel-owner in Clermont whose establishment was commandeered by the occupying forces tells us that he and his wife decided that they would consent to house and feed the German soldiers but would not allow their premises to be used for prostitution. And where this latter issue is concerned, a former occupying soldier (now a farmer in Bavaria) gives us a pathetic reminder of the choice imposed on countless young girls in occupied France.
Some people, of course, tried to have it both ways, bending whichever way the wind was blowing. Near the beginning of Le Chagrin et la Pitié footage from the early years of the occupation shows Maurice Chevalier singing songs to the glory of Maréchal Pétain; then toward the end of the film we see Chevalier after the liberation, explaining (for the benefit of his English-speaking friends) that there are lots of foolish rumors floating about; that, for example, it isn’t true that he made a singing tour in Germany at the invitation of the Nazis; that, in fact, he only sang “one little song” for the French prisoners of war, “just to cheer up the boys a little.”
Perhaps most illuminating of all is the reunion of former résistants in a small rural commune just outside of Clermont-Ferrand, where the men recount the various excuses that were offered, after the liberation, by those who hadn’t taken part in the resistance. “Quite a few of them said they had heard talk about a group of résistants and had wanted to join up, but didn’t know where to go or whom to ask. Well, believe me,” (the speaker pauses, making a gesture for the benefit of the camera) “this group of men right here is about the least well-educated group of men in Clermont-Ferrand, and none of us had any trouble finding out where to go or whom to ask!”
Eloquently indicative of the quiet courage and dignity of the lowest classes of French society is the story recounted by two Auvergnat peasants, Alexis and Louis Grave. While working for the résistance, Louis was denounced to the occupiers by an anonymous letter and sent off to Buchenwald. When he returned after the war, he immediately set out to discover who had denounced him. After a brief, discreet search, he determined that it was a certain neighbor. But, now that he knew who it was, Louis didn’t take any revenge. As he puts it, “When one has been beyond the scope of all justice, what good would it do to take justice into one’s own hands, or even to turn things over to the ‘official’ justice?”
That it was invariably the lowest classes of society—the peasants and, particularly, the workers—who rallied wholeheartedly to the resistance, is also the testimony offered by one Dennis Rake, a British secret agent who operated clandestinely in France during the occupation. “The workers were magnificent,” Rake recalls with gratitude. “They would do anything to help our operations. They gave us our bleus [the blue coveralls worn by French workers]; they housed us, fed us, hid us from the Germans and the French police. Without the French workers and their organized resistance, we couldn’t have accomplished anything.”
When asked about the French bourgeoisie, Rake can only reply, tactfully, that they were “more or less neutral.” Then, not wanting this observation to sound too damning, he adds, “I suppose it’s only those who have ‘nothing’ who can afford to act on their convictions.”
However, one of the very questions which Le Chagrin et la Pitié raises, at least implicitly, is whether the bourgeoisie in occupied France had any convictions at all—and, if so, which ones? For the bourgeois owner of a prosperous pharmacy in Clermont-Ferrand, for example, “the important thing was to keep the store running.” He explains that he had a large family to feed and a large house to heat, and that he needed a steady income to keep everything going. To make sure the Germans didn’t just take over his house or his store—as he says they often did with people they didn’t like—he just “kept quiet and minded my own business.”
And when asked if he found those years of occupation a period of unrelenting hardship, he replies that it wasn’t all bad, that there were some good moments, like the year the Germans allowed them to reopen the hunting season, which had been canceled the preceding year. “Alors, here in the Auvergne, vous savez, we have a passion for hunting. And I can tell you, the reopening of the hunting season was an enormous consolation to us!”
In general, one of the most striking features of Le Chagrin et la Pitié is the pervasiveness of this capacity of the bourgeoisie to carry on business as usual while turning their backs on what was happening all around them or simply dividing their lives into a number of different segments whose interrelatedness they manage not to see. This departmentalizing attitude is reflected in the selfrighteousness of the former German commander at Clermont, Helmuth Tausand, who blusters indignantly about the disgraceful behavior of the French resistance fighters. One day, he recalls, some of his men were marching down a country road near Clermont-Ferrand. They passed by a handful of peasants who were planting potatoes. Just as his men marched past them, the peasants threw down their shovels, picked up rifles that were hidden in their bundles, and shot down the German soldiers. “That’s not guerrilla warfare,” he insists; “that’s just plain murder. Real partisans,” he adds self-righteously, “should wear badges or armbands to identify themselves.”
But, as Le Chagrin et la Pitié reveals again and again, this departmentalizing attitude was just as characteristic of the occupied French, particularly of the French bourgeoisie, as of the occupying Germans. And, as Marcel Ophuls expressed it in a statement to the newspaper Combat, “the terribly bourgeois attitude of believing one can separate what is commonly called ‘politics’ from other human activities such as one’s work, family life, love, etc., this attitude which is so prevalent constitutes the worst possible evasion from life, from the responsibilities of life, that one can imagine.”
Ultimately, Le Chagrin et la Pitié is not just a film about the occupied France of World War II. Relying extensively on interviews filmed in 1969, it is also very much a film about France today and the kinds of attitudes the French have about their own recent history. And although this film collapses the past and the present in a way that might recall Alain Resnais’s Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog), the effect is very different. For where Resnais’s film about concentration camps is poetic and personal, very clearly the stylized work of an auteur, Le Chagrin et la Pitié is so unstylized, so pedestrian, that it seems almost authorless. Or, rather, one gets the feeling that the French people themselves were the only real auteurs of this film.
Normally, of course, this window-on-the-world approach serves to reinforce the bourgeois myths that the ruling class seeks to pass off as reality. But what makes this film so threatening to the ruling class is precisely that through the same window-on-the-world approach that is characteristic of bourgeois films, Le Chagrin et la Pitié manages to puncture some of the bourgeoisie’s most cherished myths.
And where Resnais’s Nuit et Brouillard can be “read”—and passed off—as one man’s very personal appeal to our conscience, Le Chagrin et la Pitié reads as a self-incriminating revelation by the French people themselves! Moreover, Resnais’s collapsing of past and present is carried out in a way that points to the future. The tone of Nuit et Brouillard is prophetic. It is the oracular tone of the artist-priest. As in Greek tragedy, the message is chilling but the medium is so exhilarating that the effect is cathartic. (Once again, however, the medium is the ultimate message.)
In Le Chagrin et la Pitiè, however, the collapsing of past and present does not point prophetically to some vague but ominous future that awaits us like the fate of a tragic hero. The temps (time/ tense) of Le Chagrin et la Pitié is neither the mythic future nor even simply the de-mythified past, but rather the political present that is the temps politique par excellence—the continuous present which teaches us to think ourselves historically. And in this respect, La Chagrin et la Pitié has the very considerable merit of reminding us just how pronounced the narrow-minded bourgeois departmentalizing attitude was—and still is—in France . . . and just how disastrous were—and still are—its consequences on the political life of the French nation.
* In another humorous anecdote, Mendès-France recounts that at the close of his trial, one naïve young man wrote to the lawyer who defended him, asking for a transcript of the trial . . . “in order,” so the letter stated, “that I might personally call this matter to the attention of Maréchal Pétain, who obviously must not be aware of your case, for he would certainly not allow this miscarriage of justice to occur.” The naïve young man, Mendès-France reveals, was none other than Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.