September 20, 2019

Return of a Classic

For the first time since 1987, and for the first time ever in the original French, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” Marcel Ophüls’ seminal documentary about France under Nazi occupation, comes to the U.S., including Los Angeles, this week.

Since the film’s 1971 release, there have been hundreds of Holocaust-themed feature films and documentaries, but Ophüls’ 4 1/2-hour epic about ordinary people making extraordinary choices remains classic. And through “Schindler’s List” has proven that such films may find a vast commercial audience, those who brought “The Sorrow and the Pity” back to the screen insist they did it for love.The impetus for the reissue began a couple of years ago with the Los Angeles visit of another great, if controversial, documentarian: Leni Riefenstahl.

Hitler’s old filmmaker was receiving the lifetime achievement award from Cinecon, a festival presented by the Society for Cinephiles, which sparked an outcry within the society. One member who irately left the organization in the wake of the well-publicized fray was Dennis Doros of Milestone Films.

The art-film distributor thought about all the German filmmakers who, unlike Riefenstahl, had chosen to leave Nazi Germany. He thought about “The Sorrow and the Pity,” the film about personal choice that had changed his life when he first viewed it in college. A reissue seemed more pertinent than ever, he theorized.Easier said than done. Doros had already tried, for a decade, to obtain the rights, which had been tied up with owners who had gone bankrupt. Even after he finally secured permission last year, he had another problem: Getting the word out beyond the foreign-film-art-house crowd. A sudden idea helped him gain publicity.

Doros remembered that Woody Allen, a longtime fan and supporter of Ophüls, had paid tribute to the film in “Annie Hall.” In one scene, Allen’s character, Alvy, drags Annie to see the movie, despite her complaint that she is “not in the mood to see a four-hour documentary on Nazis.” At the end of “Annie Hall,” Annie drags her new boyfriend to see the film, which Alvy considers a personal triumph.

So it was not surprising that Allen promptly agreed, after a call from Doros, to sign on as a presenter of the rerelease. “The Sorrow and the Pity” “was such non-junk in a sea of mediocrity,” he told The New York Times. “It’s to the documentary what tragedy is to drama.”

The film opens July 7 at Regent Showcase Theatre, 614 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood, (323) 934-2944.