Marcel Ophuls, Director of ‘The Sorrow and the Pity,’ Wants to Tell Israelis Some ‘Unpleasant Truths’
By Robert Mackey, December 10, 2014
Ever since 1969, when his four-and-a-half-hour documentary about the Nazi occupation of France, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” was banned from French television, the filmmaker Marcel Ophuls has had an uneasy relationship with the film industry.
Now, at 87, he has turned to the Internet to seek support for a new film he began shooting last summer about another difficult subject: the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
To complete the film, which he is directing with the Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan, Mr. Ophuls has appealed for 50,000 euros (about $62,000) on the French crowdfunding site KissKissBankBank and released a 12-minute trailer of the work in progress.
The working title of the film, “Unpleasant Truths,” was inspired by a remark attributed to President Charles de Gaulle of France about “The Sorrow and the Pity,” which was made for television but deemed unfit for broadcast because of the stark portrait it painted of wartime collaboration with the Nazis. When de Gaulle was informed that the film contained some “unpleasant truths,” he is said to have supported its suppression by replying, “France does not needs truths; France needs hope.”
The trailer opens with a scene of Mr. Ophuls trying and failing to persuade another French director, Jean-Luc Godard, to accompany him to Tel Aviv, to collaborate on the film.
The idea for a co-authored documentary on Israel and Palestine was first suggested to Mr. Ophuls by Mr. Godard more than a decade ago. The two filmmakers discussed the possible collaboration in two public conversations, in 2002 and 2009, which formed the basis for a book and a documentary.
As Richard Brody explained in a New Yorker blog post about the dialogue, in Mr. Godard’s conception, the film was to have been more about the question of Jewish identity. “I wanted to make a film that would be called simply ‘Being Jewish,’ ” Mr. Godard said in 2009. “It seems to me that being Jewish is very different from being German, or being a writer, and that’s why, these days, I’m very reticent about using the verb ‘to be.’ ”
Mr. Ophuls, a more political filmmaker, has been well aware of questions of identity since shortly after his birth in Germany in 1927. The son of the great German-Jewish filmmaker Max Ophuls, he was forced to flee the Nazis twice as a child. The family left Germany for France after the Reichstag fire in 1933. After the German invasion of France, they made their way to Hollywood in 1941.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, that wartime experience left Mr. Ophuls wary of embracing the Zionist dream of a homeland for the Jews in the Middle East.
“I’ve come to believe that patriotism is a lie, and anyone who is a patriot is a fool,” he told Stuart Jeffries a decade ago during an interview for The Guardian conducted near his home in the French Pyrenees, close to the route his family took to escape the Gestapo. “Even though I’ve been a French citizen since 1938, most of them still think of me as a German Jew. An axe-grinding, obsessive German Jew who wants to bash France and go on and on about the treatment of Jews.”
When Mr. Ophuls failed to convince Mr. Godard that the moment had arrived this summer to begin filming, he went to Tel Aviv alone and called Mr. Sivan, suggesting that together they direct a documentary looking at both the war in Gaza and the recent rise in anti-Semitism in Europe. A central focus of the film, Mr. Sivan said in a telephone interview, is to ask if the two situations are linked. To put it bluntly, Mr. Sivan said, the two directors hoped to answer the question: “Is Israel provoking anti-Semitism?”
The film will also explore the “very strange linkage between the far right in Europe and Israel,” Mr. Sivan said. “The traditional anti-Semitic right,” he noted, “is becoming very pro-Israeli.” Indeed, many extreme nationalist politicians in Europe are strong supporters of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank that their governments condemn as illegal. The question the filmmakers want to explore, Mr. Sivan added, is whether “Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism.”
The two men turned to the crowdfunding site because, Mr. Sivan said, “it’s a question of emergency,” if they are to meet a self-imposed deadline of finishing the film in time for next year’s Cannes Film Festival.
So far, the project has raised just under half of its budget, but the two men plan to return to the region next week, after a visit to Berlin to look at what Mr. Sivan, who now lives in Europe, calls the “ironic” phenomenon of young Israeli dissidents who oppose the continued occupation of the territories captured in 1967 “seeking refuge from Israel’s politics in Berlin.”
After that, “Marcel is going to Gaza,” Mr. Sivan said, noting that as an Israeli citizen he cannot go with him. They also plan to interview Israeli political leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
Part of the film, Mr. Sivan added, is the discussion between the two men as they make it, informed by their own lives and previous work.
The trailer shows the two men conducting interviews with Israelis and Palestinians and discussing their personal perspectives on the conflict as Jews who are deeply skeptical of Zionism. At one stage, as the two men discuss the unequal allocation of water between Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Mr. Ophuls says, “There is injustice everywhere, not just here.” Mr. Sivan replies, “But this is our injustice. ” After Mr. Ophuls answers, in a bleakly comic aside: “Not mine. I have nothing to do with it,” Mr. Sivan says, “Since we speak here in the name of all Jews, you’re mixed up in it.”
Asked about the criticism from Israeli conservatives and their supporters that the young people fleeing to Berlin, like Mr. Sivan himself, are only a small minority in Israel today, he replied that South Africa’s anti-apartheid activists and members of the French resistance during World War II were “the minority too.”
“As you say in Hebrew,” Mr. Sivan added, “?’It’s easier to bark with the dogs.’ ”
“Maybe we are the minority of today,” he said, “but maybe the traitors of today are the heroes of tomorrow, and the heroes of today are the traitors of tomorrow.”
Photograph from a scene in the unfinished documentary “Unpleasant Truths,” a look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by Marcel Ophuls and Eyal Sivan. Video and photo by Zeugma Films, December 10, 2014.