The Sorrow and the Pity (US/ UK, DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Marcel Ophüls's The Sorrow and the Pity is one of the great WWII Holocaust documentaries of all time, but it takes a rather unique tact, focusing on the Nazi occupation of the small industrial city Clermont-Ferrand in France. Originally created for French television in 1969, it eventually became an international success, nominated for an Oscar in 1972. Ophüls's provocative interview style is very powerful and engaging when combined with his very earnest subjects and the deathly serious topic. And it's coverage is surprisingly thorough, running deep enough to inform even the most dedicated historians.

Update 7/31/15 - 1/6/18: So, last summer, two years after I wrote my comparison of the two competing, US and UK editions of this famous documentary, Arrow reissued this film in a new HD edition.  Guess which version is the best now?  Yeah, no big surprises here.  But let's see just how superior this blu of an old, 16mm film from unspecific sources really is.  Is it worth double-dipping?
MGM's 2000 DVD of Annie Hall
It reached even broader audiences thanks to its inclusion in Woody Allen's masterpiece Annie Hall as the date movie he kept taking Diane Keaton to ("boy those guys in the French resistance were really brave, you know? To have to listen to Maurice Chevalier sing so much"). I'm sure that connection is what lead to the US DVD being earmarked "Woody Allen Presents" in 2001.

That US disc was a co-release by Milestone Film and Video, who also released Ophüls's The Troubles We've Seen, and the ever-stalwart Image Entertainment. And I guess you could call it acceptable for its time. It was non-anamorphic widescreen, supposedly in 1.66:1 more really more like 1.51:1. The film was naturally divided over two discs showing a very soft and damaged print. Then, in 2004, Arrow released it in the UK, and I was excited to import an improved edition with a fresh, anamorphic transfer. And now in 2017, they've released it again, this time on blu with another all new transfer, and some other stuff.
Milestone's 2001 US DVD top; Arrow's 2004 UK DVD middle; Arrow's 2017 UK blu bottom.
For the first set of comparisons, I've left the negative space around the image so you can see how they'd appear on a widescreen television. Milestone's non-anamorphic 1.51:1 image just sits in a sea of black, while Arrow's image is slightly pillar-boxed to 1.74:1. Both odd aspect rations, it's hard to say which is more correct... Arrow's DVD suggests matting for a theatrical presentation, maybe, but just slightly off? Milestone's is certainly open matte by comparison, as Arrow's widescreen DVD composition adds no information to the sides but crops a considerable amount vertically. Honestly, watching this movie all the way through both times, I felt like Milestone's felt more natural and pleasing, with Arrow's being too tight. But on the other hand, being anamorphic is a big deal now that fullscreen TVs are dead. Milestone's picture is tiny. It's like picking the lesser of two evils, except now we have three choices.

Arrow's pillar-boxed 1.67:1 restores the vertical information from Milestone's release, and reveals never before seen picture on the sides.  Now, the framing finally looks right. And the overall image quality was pretty much a tie between the DVDs. Arrow's disc seemed to have a bit more detail compared to Milestone's smoother, softer image. And often, with how worn and damaged the source is, it could be very hard to tell if you were seeing a little extra detail or a little extra compression artifacting.  In my 2015 draft I wrote, "I have no idea what kind of film elements still exist for this documentary, but I'd put this one at the top of the list of movies in need of an HD restoration."  Well, I still have no idea what kind of film elements still exist... the booklet only describes the transfer in a single, vague sentence as, "digitally restored by Gaumont from original film elements."  Does that mean original camera negatives, an interpositive, a print?  Well, looking at it, I think we can safely rule out OCNs; and it's a safe rule of thumb that whenever a company doesn't get specific, it's not top of the line.  Like, if they'd done a new 4k scan, they wouldn't forget to include the phrase "new 4k scan."
Milestone's 2001 US DVD left; Arrow's 2004 UK DVD middle; Arrow's 2017 UK blu right.
And indeed, we're not really being revealed any new detail or image information, although we're finally getting a sense of film grain (though I'm thinking subtly DNR'd) as opposed to video smudges.  There's no, "oh, that's what that tiny in the background says" moment, but it's certainly an improvement in terms of sharpness and clarity.  Actually, after the AR, or maybe even before, the first thing you'll notice is that it's brighter.  That and higher contrast makes the film look less murky and indistinct, which is definitely working in the film's favor.

Thankfully, all versions of this film have the original mono track in 2.0 with optional English subtitles.  The blu's audio is a lossless LPCM track, but obviously this is some pretty low-fi stuff, especially when the film uses older, vintage footage which is often more damaged, so don't expect it to sound like the Tron remake.
Now one big advantage of the Arrow DVD was that it included an excellent interview with Marcus Ophüls, where he's interviewed for almost half an hour after a screening at the National Film Theatre. It's very candid and also shows the same spirit Marcus displays in his films. The Milestone disc's only extra was the original theatrical trailer. Disappointingly, however, Arrow doesn't have that trailer. Not that big a deal, but still, a trailer from a 1960's French documentary is a more unique, interesting viewing experience than your average generic Hollywood trailer of today, and it's just one more example of how everything was a frustrating compromise with the dual DVD editions.

So it's still annoying that Arrow's blu didn't swoop in put it back.  But they did carry over the Ophüls interview, and they added a new, vintage French television programmed that aired after the film was first broadcast in their country.  It's a little corny, with an audience of teens asking a panel questions, but Ophüls is on that panel (along with a couple journalists and historians), so it's definitely worth preserving and having on this disc.  It runs for just over an hour.  They've also created a nice 34-page booklet, collecting vintage writings by Pauline Kael, Jean-Pierre Melville and Frederick Busi.  Surprisingly, this release also has reversible artwork.
The Sorrow and the Pity is undeniably a great film that belongs in anyone's collection. And before I kind of begrudgingly recommended the Arrow DVD as the better of the two options. But now their new blus is undoubtedly the clear winner.  Could this have been even better?  Possibly, if Arrow hadn't just accepted Gaumont's transfer and insisted on doing their own scan, plus scooping up that trailer.  But sadly, this film probably doesn't offer Arrow half the ROI that Killer Klowns from Outer Space does, so let's just be thankful for a considerable improvement (aspect ratio, I'm lookin' at you), which yes, I feel is worth the double dip from either of the DVDs.

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