Thursday, 22 June 2017

On Jean Renoir's "La Grande Illusion" (1937)

The French director Jean Renoir (1894-1979)'s most celebrated film, La Grande Illusion (1937), is a humanistic masterpiece of profound anti-war sentiments. A war film which - unlike its counterpart All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) - does not show a single frame of conflict or battle and does not have a single scene set on the trenches, La Grande Illusion focuses instead on a group of French officers who have been taken prisoner by German forces during the First World War, on the way they are treated differently to ordinary prisoners because of their rank, and specifically on class relationships, both between the French officers and between the French and the Germans they encounter. It's a deeply realistic film in many ways - not just based on Renoir's own wartime experiences, but lead character Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is even wearing Renoir's old aviation jacket throughout the film - but its director was not averse to stylized touches, saying in his autobiography that he was "incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairy-tale". In the context of the "low dishonest decade" of which Auden wrote, the 1930s, Renoir's film is also a way of examining relationships between European countries in the light of the rise of fascism in Germany (post-1933) and sabre-rattling between the various powers. Any pusillanimous Brexiteers sitting down to begin negotiations would do well to watch such a film and think of what can be learned from it in a modern context, though I'm sure the fact that it's in French would put them off...

The film goes to some lengths to establish what "la grande illusion" really is: any notion of boundaries between human beings. From the idea of borders between nations on a map, to the division of soldiers into different classes, to the different ethnicities of soldiers on opposing sides of the war, Renoir persistently calls for our shared humanity to guide us away from internecine conflict or international war. The character of Rosenthal, for instance, is an intentional rebuttal of negative Jewish stereotypes - descended from a wealthy family, he is by no means greedy or selfish, instead sharing his generous food parcels with the other officers - which was directly intended by Renoir as a counterpoint to growing antisemitism in Europe. This "illusion" culminates in a fun yet poignant gag at the film's close in which German soldiers shoot at two of the escaping Frenchmen, but desist once they realise their quarry has crossed the border into a politically neutral country ("ils sont en Suisse!"). Like Catch-22 and various other surrealist works - La Grande Illusion is not quite surrealist, but it shares certain surrealist idiosyncrasies - the film points to the absurdism of divisions, of being on opposing sides in all senses - geographical, political, sociocultural. Renoir is not saying that such things do not matter in the real world - geographical borders do have import, antisemitic beliefs hold sway even among those serving alongside Jewish soldiers, and so on. But the film makes it clear that they should not matter.

In certain respects La Grande Illusion resembles Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End tetralogy of novels (1924-8), which similarly treats the First World War as a great leveller which brought an end to the dominance of the aristocracy, in Britain as in France and Germany. The film's two refined and cosmopolitan aristocrats, Capitaine de Boeldieu and Rittmeister von Rauffenstein, have a mutual respect for one another in part because of their shared class and the nobility each can recognise in the other. They move in the same circles, have dined in the same restaurants, even had liaisons with the same woman - the advantages of class transcend divisions between nations. Arguably, theirs is the most poignant and affecting relationship of the film, as essential in its differences as in its similarities.

de Boeldieu recognises that a new world order is coming, that men of his white-gloved, immaculately-combed, multilingual ilk are on the way out; indeed, he welcomes this, gets on well with Maréchal, a working-class mechanic from Paris,  and accepts that to continue life after the war would be to live a futile existence. von Rauffenstein is not so easily swayed, lamenting the "joli cadeau de la Révolution française" (the French Revolution's charming gift/legacy) that has, as it were, "diluted" what aristocratic sway he and his kind would once have had. It is this difference which forms the heart of the film in my view: in the end de Boeldieu is prepared to die for his two working-class friends, Maréchal and Rosenthal, men whom von Rauffenstein considers beneath him. The former recognises that it is better for him to die a tragic figure in battle who enables a better world to emerge than it is to continue on in a world where his entire milieu - its traditions and expectations - is dead. Could this be critiqued as an instance of the aristocrat making the story about him? Perhaps. But the film doesn't do this, instead following the two escapees as they flee.

It's also just a beautifully shot film, now beautifully restored so that its sweeping monochrome vistas of Alpine slopes can be viewed in all their glory. Perhaps most dramatic and powerful in all its various set-pieces is the famous vaudeville show put on at the first prisoner-of-war camp; a huge chest of women's clothes arrives, the men dress up, and perform various jolly acts, culminating in an almost heartbreakingly optimistic performance of "Si tu veux Marguerite" by Cartier (Julien Carette). Here is a different kind of illusion. Here is the great illusion that is spectacle, the show going on even in the midst of wartime, stiff upper lip, showboating, and indeed living life with the same painted smiles, cardboard scenery and unreal material surroundings even as war rages around you. In so drawing our attention to this illusory quality, Renoir presents not just the performance on the makeshift POW camp stage as illusion, but film itself ("what we do as filmmakers - it's a trick. It's a projection of light," as Werner Herzog would later put it). And all that to a simple ditty. It's a barnstormingly good sequence, only one of many in this utter classic. Even its poster is iconic.

Plus, the Nazis hated it. What better film recommendation for today's diplomats is there?

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