The Sorrow and the Pity (US/ UK Edition 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.
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. Did it live up to my expectations? Well...
Milestone's 2001 US DVD on top; Arrow's 2004 UK DVD below.
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... I suppose Arrow is matting for a theatrical presentation, but just slightly off? Milestone's is certainly open matte by comparison, as Arrow's widescreen 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. So I tend to prefer Arrow's transfer overall, despite feeling like Milestone has the superior aspect ratio.
And the overall image quality's pretty much a tie, too. Arrow's disc seems to have a bit more detail compared to Milestone's smoother, softer image. And often it's hard to tell if you're seeing a little extra detail or a little extra compression artifacting. The print is very worn and damaged in both cases. 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.

One big advantage of the Arrow disc, though, is that it includes 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's a frustrating compromise in this film's situation.
So, it's undeniably a great film that belongs in anyone's collection. And, I guess given our options, I recommend the Arrow disc. The interview's a genuine bonus and I mean, are you really going to watch a tiny, non-anamorphic film if you can avoid it? But the cropping is frustrating, and I've read online (I'm afraid I don't speak enough French to verify this myself) that the subtitles' translations on both discs are dodgy. This comparison has really left me feeling how badly this film needs rescuing on blu-ray by somebody like Criterion. But that's not currently happening and may never, and this film's too important to just optimistically put off. So what the hell, I guess Arrow's DVD really isn't so bad.

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