It's almost thirty years since Marcel Ophuls, a director of minor French comedies (Banana Peel), switched to documentary, and produced the still-monumental work on the French Resistance, The Sorrow and the Pity (1971). The four-and-a-half hour saga was infamous in its day for showing that not every French person who survived the War was an anti-fascist freedom fighter. Some forged comfortable lives by cooperating with the puppet Vichy government, including movie star, Maurice Chevalier; others were active Nazi collaborators.
At the time of a much earlier The Sorrow and the Pity revival, Maureen Turin and I, both University of Wisconsin graduate students, queried Ophuls about his work. We interviewers, mesmerized then by the far-left filmmaking ideology of Jean-Luc Godard, asked only the most militant, abrasive questions, and never acknowledged the film's incredible strengths. Were we rude! Perhaps Ophuls should have walked away. Admirably, he stood up for himself against our belligerent inquisition.
Some of our still-potent exchange:
Q- Why are women in such a subordinate position in The Sorrow and The Pity?
A- This question is asked at every bull session. There must be some justification for it.
Women resistance leaders in France are treated today as Joan of Arc-figures at official ceremonies. They transport the flowers and the flag to the sounds of trumpet calls. Maybe it is because of this sexist representation that I intuitively stayed clear of their particular fate.... Maybe I'm just rationalizing.
Q- But what about Madame Grave, who is there during your long conversation at the home of the Grave brothers, ex-Resistance fighters? Mostly, she comes in and pours wine for the men.
A- Now I spent several days there and know that Madame Grave is a very important figure in the household. During the time of the Resistance she was also a very important figure. Yet the whole evening of the filming she stayed geographically between the kitchen and the living room. We didn't set it up that way. It just happened.
One of the producers, a political journalist, Andre Arice, became very uncomfortable because he believes in sexual equality, that every part of the family should contribute to the conversation. So he said, "Madame, why don't you join us? Come sit at the table, participate..."
Here's what a documentary maker should not do. The men started shifting their feet. She didn't want to sit down because her daughter-in-law would be left out. Now all of us were uncomfortable. Finally, out of courtesy, Madame sat. We shot two or three reels and I found in the editing room that I couldn't use a single sentence.
Arice, who should have known better, had blown it. My basic belief about documentary film direction is that you must not upset the scene you are filming, and especially not by projecting your own ideas.
Q- You seem obsessed with balancing one side to another, being generous to everybody, the Truffaut school versus Godard. Why shouldn't the documentary maker take sides?
A- There's an awful amount of misunderstanding in your question. I take sides, I always accept the challenge. You ask whether I'm on the Godard side or Truffaut side. I'm on the Truffaut side, and there you are right. I do believe in individualism. I do believe in pluralism. If you want to call that "shitty liberalism," no matter. My politics are in complete accordance with those views. You are free to put me in league with TV journalists who get one man representing one side and one the other and thus hide behind both of them. I don't believe I'm in that camp. My films have points of view which annoy a great many people, so much so that I am accused of manipulation.
I do get the facts from all sides. I can accept this attack better because it's closer to the truth. I use confrontation of different points of view, and that may be a very bourgeois way of expression, but this form of film is the only kind which interests me in the non-fiction field. To me, agit-prop is not creative. I can't do anything with it. It bores me.
Q- Someone like Godard might attack The Sorrow and the Pity by labelling it a "Hollywood film." How would you react to such a label?
A- I don't know what Godard thinks of the film. I don't know if he dislikes it as much as I dislike his films. If someone called The Sorrow and the Pity a Hollywood film, would I be feel insulted? No, I think there's a great deal of truth to that statement. This movie is a Fifth Column documentary, made by someone telling a story with a beginning, middle, and an end by use of sex, music, cutting, and manipulation, in a field where most of these things are considered by puritans as wrong to do. It's the puritan who passes on the fiction that if you use real people and take a camera into the street, you are closer to the truth than if you used Spencer Tracy. I don't believe that.
I'm getting unhappy with the word "documentary," and I don't go out and see other documentary films. This is one of the embarrassments that comes out in these discussions. When I go to a movie, I usually see a movie.