Remembering to forget

A restored print of Marcel Ophuls’ classic soul-searching marathon at the DFT.

Sep 6, 2000 at 12:00 am
May 1969: Church bells jubilantly ring out proclaiming a wedding. A young couple promenades somberly down the aisle. Congratulatory handshakes and smiles go around. Military hats line the shelf of the cloakroom. The proud father of the bride wears his war medals — Nazi Wehrmacht decorations — on the lapel of his immaculate dark suit. The Sorrow and the Pity’s present becomes the ironic prologue to its past: Director Marcel Ophuls begins his documentary on the tragedies of Nazi-occupied France with a connubial happy ending in Germany a quarter-century removed.

The horrors of the war have faded somewhat for those interviewed, like the newsreel and propaganda footage that Ophuls skillfully weaves through their accounts — allowing a subtle exposure of two themes that could make an appropriate, if not as euphonious, title for the film: irony and absurdity. Former Wehrmacht Capt. Helmuth Tausend, who invites the director and his crew to his daughter’s wedding and reception, assures them that the occupied French “... began to see we just wanted to help.” A rare excerpt from a Nazi propaganda film decries “Jewish warmongers.” Another ridicules surrealistic footage of African blacks in French infantry uniforms tribally dancing to rhythms they pound out on empty tins. “These are the guardians of civilization,” the German narrator sarcastically quips.

Ophuls, true to his journalistic background, turns his lens from the Germans to give equal time to the ironies and absurdities of the occupied French. Anecdotes of the Vichy government allude to a country under the influence of a national Stockholm syndrome. Just as Patty Hearst may have become loyal to her kidnappers as the gun-toting “Tania,” young Frenchman Christian de la Mazibre admits to having become a member of the Nazi SS. The romantic heroes of French President de Gaulle’s resistance myth describe themselves as societal pariahs during the occupation: homosexuals, communists, the underclass.

In a newsreel, Maurice Chevalier greets his American fans from a liberated France. As he denies any past Nazi sympathies and croons,”... up on top of a rainbow, sweepin’ the clouds away,” it seems that the final irony is how monstrous normal people may become while clutching at even the delusion of leading a normal life.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].