MARCEL OPHULS which, amongst many upheavals, Ophuls and other progressive director that he would treat the film with “respect and admirajournalist colleagues went on strike from the government-contion.” “Never mind the respect and admiration,” Ophuls wrote trolled broadcaster ORTF and were not allowed back to work back. “Just make it funny.” for months). Whether as an outgrowth of this turmoil, or as part of Ophuls’ own reckoning with the trauma of his family’s expeThat kind of directness, tempered by occasional flashes of hurience in Vichy France, his quietly insistent interviews began to mor, would continue to characterize Ophuls’ nonfiction films. pull back the curtain on what historian StanAfter the success of The Sorrow and the ley Hoffmann has called “the Official VerPity, he turned his unflinching camera onto ”It was such non-junk in sion” of wartime France that had persisted other flashpoints in world affairs, deploying for decades—that of a country uniformly thoroughness and nuance and managing to a sea of mediocrity, with engaged in a noble resistance, save for a avoid the pitfalls of preachy, smug, or tenno attempt to be popular few outlying and reviled collaborators. dentious filmmaking. Instead, he searches for the humanity of his subjects, even when or commercial. It’s to the Instead, Ophuls reveals Vichy France in their actions are contemptible, and for the documentary what tragefar more troubling complexity: through complexity of events, even when we would the recollections not only of highly placed prefer simplicity. In The Memory of Justice dy is to drama.” military men and ministers but of everyday (1975), he examines the Nuremberg trials— — Woody Allen farmers, soldiers, shopkeepers, and hairby most accounts a high point in American dressers, he weaves an intricate tapestry of human rights and humanitarian values—but human failings interrupted by occasional acts of great courage. views them through the lens of the Vietnam War, asking us to The prospect of challenging the Official Version was so upsetconsider the fraught nature of moral authority in the hands of ting to the French national self-image that the documentary a victorious nation. And in Hôtel Terminus, another staggering was for a time banned from French airwaves. Retired President four-hour-plus investigative film, Ophuls, as narrator-interviewCharles de Gaulle was even consulted on the matter; when iner, departs from the calm solemnity of his voiceovers and beformed that the film reveals “unpleasant truths,” de Gaulle is comes by turns sarcastic, ironic, a dogged detective, and an said to have replied, “France does not need truths; what France impatient interlocutor. It is a bravura performance by a director needs is hope.” in a supporting role. Despite the initial backlash at home, The Sorrow and the Pity would be universally hailed as a milestone in documentary filmmaking. Breaking boundaries of traditional length to tell a large story; juxtaposing, without apology or qualification, conflicting accounts to develop tension within the film; using popular songs and period footage both to bolster and occasionally undercut the unfolding history; and incorporating his own gentle but piercing questions of his interview subjects, Ophuls created a new set of standards for nonfiction narrative, one that would be quoted (Shoah), imitated (Reds), and eventually parodied (from This Is Spinal Tap to The Office) for decades to come. One of the film’s greatest admirers, Woody Allen, recalled its early impact: “It was such non-junk in a sea of mediocrity, with no attempt to be popular or commercial. It’s to the documentary what tragedy is to drama.” When writing Ophuls for permission to use clips of it in Annie Hall, he took pains to reassure the
The mischievous side of Ophuls is far less known and appreciated than his gravitas, but despite the weightiness of his films he retains a buoyant, puckish streak—clearly on view in his autobiographical film, Un voyageur (“a traveler”), which he insisted on releasing in English under the cheeky title Ain’t Misbehavin’ (see page 116). Generously peppered with clips from his favorite films, raucous memories of his father, and reminiscences by notable players in his career, it is a fond and desultory amble through a remarkable life. Even now as he approaches his 90s, the messy world of human affairs is never far from his mind. His current film—still in production—wades into the sticky politics of the Middle East, positioning the half-Jewish, former refugee Ophuls in conversation—or perhaps engaged argument—with his co-director, the unabashedly secular and self-critical Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan. Ophuls seems to enjoy not making things easy. With a nod toward de Gaulle’s pronouncement about The Sorrow and the Pity, and as an apt summation of the work he has committed into our consciousness over an extraordinary career, he has chosen a fitting title for his upcoming film: Unpleasant Truths. How fortunate we are that Marcel Ophuls has continued to tell those truths—unpleasant, necessary, funny, unavoidable—in such particular fashion, and with such universal resonance, for a world much in need of hearing them. Peter L. Stein is a Peabody Award-winning documentary maker and a frequent writer, producer, and presenter of film, television, and arts programming. He is the former Executive Director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and currently Senior Programmer for Frameline.
THE SORROW AND THE PITY
Souvenir Guide from the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival with exclusive editorial features.