After 12 years, French see a controversial war film

It took 12 years for France's state-run television networks to broadcast ''The Sorrow and the Pity'' because it put wartime France in an unfavorable light.

But when the controversial 41/2 hour documentary film on French attitudes toward the German occupation during World War II was finally aired nationwide Oct. 29, it left many Frenchmen wondering what all the fuss had been about.

Although 27 foreign TV networks have shown the film since it came out in 1969 , only 600,000 moviegoers had been able to see it in French cinemas. For a variety of primarily political reasons, French TV refused to broadcast it.

It was only after Socialist President Francois Mitterrand came to power last May that the country's third channel agreed to put it on. ''We feel that the French people are mature enough to decide for themselves,'' explained Serge Moati, the channel's recently appointed program director.

The history of ''The Sorrow and the Pity'' goes back to 1967, when TV producers Andre Harris and Alain de Sedouy, two Young Turks at ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion et Television Francaise), as the French broadcasting corporation was then called, introduced a new style of documentary using archive materials and contemporary interviews.

Their first film, with Marcel Orphuls as director, was ''Munich or Peace for 100 Years,'' a highly successful documentary on events leading up to World War II. But in the wake of the May 1968 riots in France, the ideas put forward by the three-man team were suddenly considered too daring and left-wing. As a result, they were fired.

Unperturbed, they took their proposals to West German and Swiss TV and soon began work on a new documentary: ''Chronicle of a Town Under the Occupation,'' later to be known as ''The Sorrow and the Pity.''

The filmmakers chose Clermont-Ferrand in central France as their subject. Not only was this grimy provincial town not far from Vichy, France's collaborationist capital during the war, but also it was in the Auvergne, where numerous partisan groups operated.

It took eight months to go through thousands of feet of archives film and conduct 60 hours of interviews with some 50 former resistance members, collaborators, German soldiers, and ordinary French citizens to produce the two-part documentary.

When the film was first released in 1969 in West Germany and Switzerland, it created a furor. French TV, however, refused to even look at it.

In 1971, ''The Sorrow and the Pity'' opened up in a small Latin Quarter cinema, later spreading to theaters elsewhere in the country. Yet despite the overwhelming enthusiam (some 500 people were turned back at every showing when the film first appeared) as well as a strong press campaign for it to be broadcast, French TV continued to balk.

First it argued that it had no free air time available. It later maintained that the producers had never offered the film. When one of the directors finally saw the film at a Champs Elysee cinema, he condemned it by saying that ''it destroyed the myths which Frenchmen still need.'' Orphuls described ORTF's attitude as ''censorship through inertia.''

Why the unwillingness to show a film that had in itself become a myth because of the move to suppress it? For one thing, the conservative governments of Georges Pompidou and Valery Giscard d'Estaing felt it did not show the French in a favorable light. ''It portrays a global vision of France which is totally unacceptable,'' said former Health Minister Simone Veil, an ORTF board member at that time. Others maintained that the film lacked balance.

France's conduct during the occupation has long touched a tender spot among those who have gone through the war.

''The truth of the matter is that the active resistance only consisted of a small percentage of the country and that many French, while not actually collaborating, made little effort to confront the Germans,'' noted Philippe Viannay, a former resistance member. ''France (as the film shows) was the only occupied country whose government did not go into exile and openly collaborated with the Germans.''

The makers have always maintained that ''The Sorrow and the Pity'' is but one aspect of the war. ''I did not try to show all Frenchmen,'' said Ophuls. ''I filmed individuals whom I allowed to speak . . . to speak about what they experienced. It is not a sociological analysis.'' Added Harris: ''Everyone has their war to tell.''

Its showing on French TV, which was seen by 60 percent of the viewing audience, between 18 and 20 million people, has therefore resulted in somewhat of an anticlimax.

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