(English, French, German, Serbian and Croatian dialogue)
In “The Troubles We’ve Seen,” master documentarian Marcel Ophuls tackles the dangers, rewards and ethical/philosophical underpinnings of war reporting in this century. Helmer’s restless probing — and audacious juxtaposing of movie clips with footage culled from four trips to Sarajevo starting January ’93 — yields a compellingly sculpted view of ongoing atrocities and ongoing courage, framed by a view of other historical conflicts that is comprehensive only in segments.
“First Journey” and “Second Journey,” the first two free-standing installments of a three-part project, preemed with little advance notice on final day of the Cannes fest and will be telecast by Brit pubcaster BBC the last two Saturdays in July. Theatrical release in France this autumn should be echoed in major cities worldwide.
Pix are dense, entertaining, informative but also “difficult” for viewers whose level of erudition in the arts and humanities falls beneath that of Ophuls himself — which is just about everybody. Helmer is a major character in both installments.
Ophuls has an unbeatable opening hook in the true story of how World War II was declared on the very day his father, Max Ophuls, was directing a scene in the costumer “From Mayerling to Sarajevo” in which disgruntled Prinzip shot Archduke Ferdinand, thereby setting off the first World War. Ophuls postulates there’s no end to meaningful coincidences or to history itself.
Ophuls reiterates historian Philip Knightley’s pronouncement that “the first casualty of war is the truth,” and posits the journalist’s job as trying to get at the truth all the same. He then cuts to mocking military scenes from “Duck Soup,” including the Marx Brothers singing “All God’s Children Got Guns.”
Ophuls documents his efforts to get to Sarajevo in January ’93, speaks to intrepid journalists — both novice and seasoned, but all freezing — and relates the efforts of his own tiny crew to get around, which they do mostly by tagging along with the BBC’s exemplary men in the field.
Martha Gellhorn, the crusty no-nonsense reporter who posed as a nurse to sneak aboard a D-day landing craft, only to have her scoop swiped by former husband Ernest Hemingway, is an unmitigated delight. Gellhorn says boredom is the worst thing in a war setting and contends that “war correspondents are highly privileged and shouldn’t be glorified.”
Clips from Olivier’s screen version of “Henry V” comment brilliantly on the folly of ill-considered battle, as Clinton, Major, Mitterand and Kohl are shown going about their non-committal business in the comfort of state occasions.
Although clips — from “His Girl Friday” to “Lola Montes”– make irreverent points throughout, pic’s second part employs a highly questionable comparison when footage of James Cagney dancing up a storm is intercut with testimony from a Bosnian stage actor whose legs were blown off.
First part ends with jarring sequence of Ophuls wearing a bathrobe and a fedora in a Vienna hotel room, while a shapely naked woman lolls on the bed. Auds at the Cannes preem were baffled by helmer’s intent. Scene could be taken to mean that life goes on outside the besieged war zone, that journalists are “whores” or, better yet, that viewers can rapidly disregard the whole topic of Sarajevo’s agony to wonder, “What’s Ophuls doing on camera with a naked woman?”
Pic’s longer second part is bracketed by shots of Venice, which Ophuls deems to be “another dying city.” Back in Sarajevo, docu delves into risks and etiquette of war reporting and the primordial importance of luck. In a series of scathing indictments based on televised news shows hosted by Gallic media honchos, French government officials are shown spinning their wheels with egregious complacency.
Pic examines control of info during the Gulf War, and the president of Serbia assures Ophuls with a straight face that freedom of the press in Serbia is “unparalleled.”
Ophuls and Burns conducted lively interviews, weeks before the massacre, in the same Sarajevo market where the devastating February ’94 bombing took place. (Pre-massacre interviewees all insisted that relief supplies be redirected to their needier compatriots outside of town.)
Odyssey winds down as a surgeon at an overwhelmed clinic in Sarajevo — a city where one out of every six people was killed in less than a year — sings “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” in a lovely baritone.
At Cannes, “First Journey” was screened in an answer print fresh from the lab; “Second Journey” was shown as video projection. Pierre Boffety and Pierre Milon’s no-frills camera work is involving and communicates on the big screen. Sound recording is crisp, editing tops.
More footage of Ophuls sparring with Serb leaders would be welcome and will apparently figure prominently in third and final installment.
Outraged that French trades had given little or no coverage to the Cannes screening, Ophuls canceled his press conference and left town, sending a witty and combative fax to take his place. Latest opus proves that when it comes to much-needed conceptual chutzpah, Ophuls is irreplaceable.