#73 (tie) – La Grande Illusion (1937), dir. Jean Renoir

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La grande fuite. Jean Gabin, France’s biggest box office star of the day, waits for his moment in Jean Renoir’s prisoner-of-war drama La Grande Illusion, an exploration of, well, a lot of things about pre-WWII Europe.

French director, critic, and future yammer subject Francois Truffaut once noted that it is impossible to make an anti-war film, because the very act of depicting war inevitably glamorizes the combat or glorifies the soldiers involved. Truffaut is probably right concerning most war pics, but it is doubtful his maxim could apply to director Jean Renoir’s prisoner-of-war film La Grande Illusion (1937). Set during World War I, the film follows two French officers, the aristocratic Captain de Boldieu (Pierre Fresney) and the working class pilot Lieutenant Maréchel (Jean Gabin), as they deal with being POWs in German custody. The film establishes a number of prisoner-of-war movie archetypes that would be copied by numerous later films (with one prominent scene being lifted pretty much wholesale for Casablanca). But it is a distinctly unusual war movie, in that there is no combat and no bad guys. Even the attempts at escape serve more as backdrops for character studies and observations about the absurdities of nationalism and class divisions or the way that fate has of undoing even our best laid plans. Most anti-war films look to man’s brutality to make their point; La Grande Illusion instead chooses to showcase our common humanity. (114 min.)

J. – We’ve really been loading up on Jean Renoir films of late; the filmmaker is going to account for three of the 10 movies in our next SASY Wrap. But after witnessing the streak he was on from 1936 to 1939, you can understand why he is so highly regarded. I certainly enjoy his work far more than that of his even more famous father, Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir — the big hack! (I seriously hate his paintings.)

Well, that was an ugly digression… back to the film. I’m a big fan of POW movies, there’s something about that particular scenario that just seems ideal for cinema. I think a lot of it has to do with the clashing of ideologies in close proximity, but whatever the reason, I am am a super-size admirer of The Great Escape, Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17, and especially David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. None of those films made the Sight & Sound list, but then, I’m not sure any of them have the subtlety and sense of purpose found in La Grande Illusion.

So, what is the grand illusion of the title? I’m looking forward to discussing that with you, S., but I think we have a few items to unpack first. I suppose it makes the most sense to start with the characters, because this film revolves very heavily around interaction more than it does incident — a trait the movie shares with Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. There are three distinct sections to the film, each developing a different set of relationships. The first section details the day to day relations of a group of French officers in a prison camp as they eat meals together and plot an escape. Having watched the above-mentioned POW films a million times, the way that Renoir handles the prison camp is very surprising. The men joke and frolic like there isn’t a war on, and the relations between the captives and the captors are rarely strained. Indeed, it is perhaps Lt. Maréchel that comes across as the most aggressive figure, with the Germans who guard him often feeling nothing more than sympathy and kindness for their charges. There is a great moment when Maréchel loses it in solitary confinement and his guard tries to cheer him up by giving him a harmonica to pass the time. I’m sure part of the reason why La Grande Illusion feels so different from other POW films comes down to it being a World War I film, and not a World War II film — I’m guessing Renoir wouldn’t be as kind to the Nazis.

S. – What I found really compelling about Renoir’s construction of a POW camp was the intelligence afforded the characters, there was no time spent/wasted painting the prisoners as heroic good guys and the captors as evil bad guys. Instead you are presented with a group of men forced into close company via a bad situation (captured by the opposing army) within a bad situation (WWI). It is acknowledged that even if an escape is possible it won’t be to the comfort of home but an arduous journey right back into the fighting. However, that is no reason not to plan an escape, on the contrary the escape is what you devote yourselves too. Not because the guards are cruel or the food is awful but because it is your duty and the idea of freedom keeps you sane. You may not have much in common with your newly acquired roommates but the desire to actively take control of your fate is shared by all.

The group of men we spend the first portion of the film with are distinctively different in character and there is a palpable hum of self-preservation in their willingness to abandon class differences and ignore personality clashes to focus on the mutual goal of freedom. Perhaps this is not realistic but it serves to define the larger issues at play and skilfully avoids making any character a villain or a scapegoat. Even the guards are allowed to keep their humanity intact. The sequence with Maréchel in solitary confinement powerfully conveys the fine line that exists between competently carrying on in trying conditions and utter despair. Left with only his thoughts for company and deprived of the hope of actively preparing for escape and the camaraderie of his fellow prisoners forces Maréchel to confront the truth of his situation. The attitude of the guys back on tunnel duty is also effected by his absence, an unwelcome reminder that they are not in control. And just when things look like they might come together fate intervenes to nullify all of their careful plans.

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The first section of the film revolves around an ensemble of French officers in a prison camp. The movie finds subtle ways to highlight the social distances among a group of men who are stuck in close quarters — take a guess which of these characters is the aristocratic de Boldieu.

J. – And fate certainly plays a major role in this film, as the characters are generally found to not really be in charge of their destinies. You’re going to have your tunnel exit into the garden — nope, just before you get there other prisoners get shot in said garden during an escape attempt. The escape day has arrived — nope, everyone is moved to a new camp. But the tunnel is still there, you just need to tell the new prisoners — nope, well, I won’t ruin that. Heck, the film starts with Maréchel about to head out to meet a woman and at the last second he is instead asked to take up de Boldieu on a recon flight → shot down → prison. The film, I think, restores some active agency to its characters later on, but the point is definitely made in the early going.

The issue of class and social relationships is also definitely key to the proceedings in this film. It gets knocked up a level in the second part (which we’ll get to), but you’re definitely right, S., that it plays a role in the first prison camp as well. The characters may put aside a lot of their differences in pursuit of a common goal, but the film puts those differences front and center. A lot of that comes down to the character of Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio, who also plays the marquis in The Rules of the Game). Rosenthal is Jewish and from a banking family that has bought its way into the French aristocracy. He is a fascinating character in that he plays firmly against the obnoxious stereotype of the parsimonious Jew, instead being particularly generous in sharing the food parcels he receives from home — a true thumb in the eye to the current of anti-Semitism that was sweeping Europe at the time. And because he is nouveau riche, Rosenthal gets along fantastically with the working class/middle class prisoners, while the old money de Boldieu always makes his comrades ill at ease. It is only because of Maréchel’s good word that the other men are willing to have faith in the monocled captain. But the film’s ideas relating to class, lineage, and nationalism really come to the fore when Maréchel, de Boldieu, and Rosenthal are transferred to the camp run by Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich Von Stroheim).

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Erich Von Stroheim gives a marvelous, tri-lingual performance as prison commandant von Rauffenstein. His imposing physical presence plays with expectations, as he is really a thoroughly courteous but wounded upholder of the old school.

S. – What a wonderful character is von Rauffenstein! His insistence on maintaining formalities and protocols in keeping with his aristocratic heritage borders on the absurd given the confines and hardships of war. In addition the quirks of dress (that neck brace is genius!) and manner makes for an unforgettable character. The courtesy he extends to fellow aristocrat de Boldieu is done with seeming delight at the opportunity to maintain the world of order and privilege he considers his birthright. While de Boldieu obviously knows how to play the game of manners with his captor he does not share von Rauffenstein’s determination to preserve the old ways. The scenes with the two of them together are some of the best of the film to me, as one remains defiant of the broader changes being brought about by the war while the other seems set on accepting his fate with dignity.

J. – It’s not just a great character, but a remarkable performance. We really didn’t take to the movie Greed, but whatever misgivings we have about Von Stroheim as a director, I think we can safely agree that he does a fantastic job here as an actor. The von Rauffenstein role is a very difficult one, if only because Von Stroheim has to act in three languages (German, French, and English), and he acquits himself superbly. The neck brace is a wonderful aspect of the character, because it gives the man a stern, menacing  appearance that in most films would instantly peg him as the villain, but in La Grande Illusion it is really a sign of vulnerability, as the man has suffered greatly from injuries sustained in a plane crash. Von Rauffenstein has a calm sense of command and entitlement, but he is also courteous and considerate — within bounds, however, as he is also shown (behind closed doors) to have a measure of disdain for “low born” folk and perhaps a decent dollop of anti-Semitism.

But however imposing and complex that one character may be, it is the relationship between von Rauffenstein and de Boldieu that drives much of the second part of the film, and I agree that their scenes together are among the highlights of the movie. The issue of class is paramount in those scenes, no longer being implied but rather openly discussed. But the conversations never get preachy or ham-fisted, coming across rather as the good-natured debate of two friends. Indeed, de Boldieu probably finds himself more at ease in the company of an aristocratic enemy than he does around the common men on his own side. And I love how the intimacy between the two captains is often depicted by the pair speaking to each other in English — a language that would set them apart from everyone else in the prison — guards and captives alike. That Renoir has these two men speak to each other in English at what is probably the climax of the film, shows the strength of their bond and the filmmaker’s willingness to do away with standard conventions. (I can’t imagine a Hollywood film busting into French at the pivotal moment.) I actually think de Boldieu is just as concerned as von Rauffenstein with preserving the old ways, but only with regard to himself. De Boldieu realizes, however, that the world no longer needs the nobility, and he is not just OK with that but willing to sacrifice everything to abet the men of the new world order being ushered in by the war.

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We gave more of a breakdown of the mise-en-scène techniques employed by Renoir in our yammer on The Rules of the Game, but they apply here in La Grande Illusion. In this scene, the prisoners are entertaining themselves with a performance when news comes in that the French have retaken a fort. Renoir gives a long shot to set the scene (top left), then cuts to a British prisoner in drag instructing the band to play “La Marseilles”. In a single take, the prisoner turns and takes off his hat to show how not a woman he is; the camera then tracks right to show the defiant Maréchel singing and turning to the Germans in the audience; Renoir then pulls back to reveal the German officers as thy exit the venue; pans left to show the audience singing; moves back across the room to the performer in drag; and then turns round to show the men singing in unison. The camera movement and choreography are remarkable throughout the film, but this long take is particularly excellent — little surprise the scene was basically stolen for Casablanca. (Click to embiggen)

S. – The self-sacrifice of the noble de Boldieu enables two representatives of the new world order, Maréchel and Rosenthal, to finally grasp the elusive goal of escape. The trials of these two comrades making a bolt for Switzerland forms the third part of the film and allows the viewer to consider the implications of the war from yet another perspective. The introduction of a female experience of the war comes from Elsa, the mistress of a farm (played by the wonderful Dita Parlo), who takes in the fugitives. It’s a decision that allows all of them to indulge in an idyllic family dynamic as they all gradually heal from the brutality of their recent realities. For Rosenthal it is partially a physical injury that he must overcome, yet the bond he builds with Elsa’s young daughter Lotte is responsible for a greater transformation. Similarly Elsa’s loss of husband and brothers, both in terms of having to run the farm by herself and the isolation she has endured, is gradually erased by her growing relationship with Maréchel. Initially the language barrier is quite alienating for Maréchel, who is emotionally quite shut down after the escape ordeal but over time this is broken down along with all the others. While the connection is fragile you feel that it is genuine, made more intense by the constant shadow of the war. Through this third scenario Renoir again explores the similarities we share with the people that normally exist in different spheres to our own.

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The third section of the film is looser and lighter than the other sections of the film, but also probably the most bittersweet. But who can be sad when we get more Dita Parlo!

J. – Good stuff, S. Not sure how much more I have to add to that. I do think it’s worth throwing in a mention of the actual escape, if only to point out that it’s actually a pretty decent plan that they put into motion. Even so, the movie really never is about the inevitable escape. Instead, the escape serves as just another opportunity to explore the themes that have already run through the movie. I do think it’s notable that when Maréchel and Rosenthal start getting fed up with the hardships of being on the lam, it’s the old class-based and racial tropes that immediately surface as they bicker with each other. The sequence at the farm serves as a way to quell those differences once again, and as you noted above, reinforce the idea that we are all to able to relate to each other across seemingly insurmountable rifts. And now that they’re out of the prison it’s a wonderfully free sequence in the final third, and who better than Dita Parlo for a leap into freedom! We loved her performance in L’Atalante so much that it was excellent to see her again, and she does a whole lot with a role that is not very big and rather light on dialogue. But that’s enough of the little stuff, let’s go big picture! So, S., what would say is the “Grand Illusion” of the film’s title?

S. – That is the big question and I don’t think there is a simple answer. Initially I thought it was about the fairy-tale narrative: you tell yourself to get through difficult situations, that no matter how bad things are now or what life throws at you, eventually things will all work out alright. When in reality we are all at the mercy of things outside of our personal control. But on further examination I think Renoir’s statement has greater scope than that. Perhaps it is that we are not who society and circumstance tells us we are, all of those constructs are the illusion. We are linked by our common humanity and are deluded into thinking otherwise. Possibly there are as many interpretations as there are viewers. What is certain is La Grande Illusion is a magnificent film.

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In a film with many fine character interactions, the best may be the friendship between de Boldieu and von Rauffenstein, which has an easy-going chemistry that feels completely natural as it deals with some weighty topics. Part of the appealing naturalism of the exchanges might stem from a lot of the dialogue being developed on the set, particularly by Von Stroheim.

J. – I think the film actually presents several illusions, all of which might compete for the grand title. I think the principle one is precisely the idea that you have put forward: class and nationality are artificial constructs that can be transcended and superseded by our common humanity. In that regard, our differences are illusory. However, I think that there is another trickier element to that story that the film also presents. The movie very astutely points out that even though these differences may be fictitious, they remain powerful. An equally potent aspect of the illusion is that even if we think we are working past our differences or fighting that “war to end all wars”, we remain divided and ready to lash out at each other along the same old lines of division if the going gets tough enough. No matter how humane La Grande Illusion may be, it is a film constantly tinged with sadness, loss, and the cruelty of fate — we have what we need to live together, but are we willing to apply ourselves to make that happen?

Related yammers:
#4 – The Rules of the Game (1939), dir. Jean Renoir and starring a number of the same actors found in La Grande Illusion
#17 – Seven Samurai (1954), dir. Kurosawa Akira
#93 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
#183 – Rome, Open City (1945), dir. Roberto Rossellini
#59 – Barry Lyndon (1975), dir. Stanley Kubrick
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