La Grande illusion

(Grand Illusion, France - 1937)

by James Cobo & Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jean Gabin, Dina Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich Von Stroheim, Julien Carette, Georges Péclet
Genre: War/Drama
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir, Charles Spaak
Cinematography: Christian Matras
Composer: Joseph Kosma
Runtime: 111 minutes

James: In a way, the most depressing effect of the cinema world of the 1980's wasn't the screeching decline of the American cinema, which anyone with a pair of eyes and a critical mind could see coming following the enormous commercial success of thrill-ride movies like Jaws and Star Wars. What really hurt was the Americanization of the foreign markets, in an effort to boost their own sagging film business. They looked at American movies, and saw that they were turning a profit. Instead of deciding that it would be better for the long run to continue their own national filmic traditions, they elected to adapt an overarching American aesthetic - happy, closed endings, sympathetic characters, editing with an eye towards continuity. In doing this, the Italians and French and British hoped, they'd be able to market more aggressively and jumpstart their own business. And it was thus, with 1988's Cinema Paradiso, that the art of national filmmaking died quietly.

Mike: It's shown by the fact that a devivative, unrealistic, totally unbelievable wannabe tearjerker war movie like Saving Ryan's Privates is considered to be one of the definitive movies of the 90's. It's definitive all right; definitive of the fact that Hollywood is totally shameless in it's attempts to cash in on viewer's sentimentality. It's definitive of the fact that Hollywood has no problem glorifying the inglorious, making stupidity play like a great heroic triumph. Finally, it's definitive of the fact that the many illusions Renoir's truly great film deals with, most notably nationalism and patriotism are still running wild in the 21st century.

James: Needless to say, a movie like La Grande Illusion would never have been made. It is quintessentially a FOREIGN work, eschewing the contemporary rules of cinema like cutting along continuity, use of music, and even language. Watching it today, it's impossible to not feel alienated, for such was the intent; this movie ran perpendicular to the all-encompassing, inviting traditions of American cinema. But just because a movie doesn't necessarily want you to get close to it, doesn't mean that it's any less great. Indeed, oftentimes this sulky wariness can make a movie greater, and this movie is made brilliant by it.

Mike: I don't believe that the film intends to be repellent, it's simply using a repellent topic to make points that are timeless. In his autobiography, My Life and My Films, Renoir wrote, "bringing together of men through their callings and common interests has haunted me all my life and does so still. It is the theme of 'La Grande Illusion' and it is present, more or less, in all my works." Renoir's example was is that a French farmer could talk to a Chinese farmer because they have farming, but couldn't talk to a French financier because "they are unconcerned with the others interests." I think this point has a lot of truth to it, but it's sad that the backbone of one of the greatest filmmakers is no longer true about his industry. The changes in the film industry have made it so that watching films no longer means you have anything in common. Now, there are the film fans that put a little time into finding what's worth theirs. Then there's the movie watchers Hollywood spends megatons of money laughing at. After they made The Mummy into one of the top grossing movies of all time, they had them in mind when putting out the sequel that is only there to cash in on the success of the first, The Dummy Returns. Of course, there were a lot of them because it's already grossed close to $200 million. They gave these people an apologetic popcorn version of Pearl Harbor because the truth would make them less money. They expect them to order Miss Congenitalia on PPV because, with the vaunted Sandra Bollocks playing the same basic role in almost every movie, you probably don't remember if you saw this one in the theater or it was one of Bollocks' others that was equally pointless and predictable.  Of course, fans of either type can still come together and some movies still appeal to both, but as a whole the industry is moving more and more towards one group being the farmers and the other being the financiers.

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James: La Grande Illusion is the story of two French World War I fighter pilots, Lt. Marechal (Gabin) and Capt. de Boieldieu (Fresnay), who are shot down and transferred into a series of prisoner-of-war camps, all the while formulating plans to escape. Along the way they meet a flock of characters, ranging from Lt. Rosenthal, an extravagantly generous Jewish officer, to Cpt. von Rauffenstein (von Stroheim), the sympathetic German commandant of the ultimate camp who comes from noble lineage, to Elsa, the German farmwife who looks after the men when they're at the end of their rope.

Mike: It should be pointed out that de Boieldieu is only in von Rauffenstein's prison camp because Von Rauffenstein shot him down earlier in the war. Von Rauffenstein is only running the camp because he was later wounded to the point that a non-fighting role was the only way he could remain in the war. This makes their friendship one of the most unlikely, but it's totally believable because they are a dying breed from a different world that was ruled by aristocrats like themselves. The war is changing the world in a sense, but it's not changing the men. In fact, much of Renoir's point is that it's robbing them (not just aristocrats, everyone) of their self- respect and humanity. The reason they were able to become friends is von Rauffenstein clings to the dying notion of class loyalty, which makes him believe de Boieldieu deserves better than the common captured enemy soldiers he's surrounded by. Ultimately, war forces them apart, with a memorable scene where de Boieldieu forces him to shoot him. After doing so, von Rauffenstein is forced to admit his situation, and gives us the memorable quote, ``for a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and I--it's a good way out.''

It must be noted that the von Rauffenstein and de Boieldieu relationship does not glorify aristocrats or make a positive statement about them. La Grande Illusion is a film where no characters are bad guys, only the unseen chessmasters on a power trip who make everyone a pawn and move them over fabricated boundaries are evil. No characters are good guys either; they are simply human beings examined thoughtfully and truthfully. Like everyone else, war has turned von Rauffenstein and de Boieldieu into tragic figures, so Renoir makes us care for them. That said, he rightfully blames their type for the fact that another war could happen. Essentially their goal in setting the WWI and possibly in having WWII was to preserve and justify their position and lifestyle, which in turn continued to try to suppress classlessness and democracy. It shows them as resistant to change, fighting to preserve their old codes. The irony is that the only thing a war would do is ensure that less of them were around when the common man took control.

James: In a way, it seems like the cast is a lot larger than it really is because so many of the supporting players have integral roles in the story. One showoff at the first camp, for example, is the driving force behind the theater project that itself drives the men for a short time. After they change camps, he's never heard from again. Even Elsa, tentative love of Marechal's life, barely gets ten minutes of screen time over the course of the entire film.

Typically, having such a seemingly unwieldy cast is the fault of unskilled storytelling, but in La Grande Illusion, the unfriendly cast is a cow at the altar of tone. The overriding feel of the movie is one of jarring uncertainty, where the most important events happen off-camera (the capture of Marechal and de Boieldieu, in fact, is unshown - the film jumps from the two leaving a small French speakeasy to von Rauffenstein being congratulated) and the trivialities are foregrounded.

Mike: Renoir is most known stylistically for his subtle precision. His camera moves as if it always knows the best place to bring out the humanity in his characters. He's able to flesh out the characters and make us feel for them with long takes that make us feel like we are in the room rather than our recliners.

As far as the important events happening off camera goes, Renoir is careful not to glorify war in any way. In fact, he's given us a war movie that the action fan claims contains no war. He doesn't need violence and bloodshed because he knows how to show war as it is, a collection of largely adequate individuals doing things they wouldn't otherwise do to decent human beings. He is unwilling to compromise this vision by including scenes that could be considered thrilling, exciting, or explosive though, so the terrors and their gory details are largely left to the imagination. This works because it allows the joys, no matter how little, to be emphasized and that is the point of the film.

James: Renoir does not neglect to tie that tone in with the themes of the film, a trait commonplace in many of today's oft-praised neo-classics. The film is widely called the definitive anti-war work, and not without reason: Renoir meticulously creates an atmosphere of war that is entirely disparate from the human existence. Renoir's war is one where in order to taste freedom, one has to risk suffocation in a birth-canal of a makeshift mine shaft, and even then outrun the guards, and even THEN, on the eve of exodus, the Powers that Be decided to switch officers to different camps. It is not a coincidence that Marechal is shown thrown into solitary without concretely showing the transgression that led to his incarceration; it's Renoir reminding us that in war, inhuman things happen to people for no apparent reason. In his solitary confinement, Marechal bottoms out, pleading with the sympathetic guard who comes to visit him - yet who only speaks German - "I want to hear French spoken."

Mike: La Grande Illusion has taken on different meanings as time went on, but it's important to realize that it was made in 1937. Renoir knew war was on the horizon, and this is his testament to why the countries shouldn't fight. He's saying, I'll choose the company of a similar foreigner over a different countryman every day of the week, and you should to.

James: The movie isn't all doom and gloom. In reminding us that war is dehumanizing, Renoir celebrates the ephemera that comprises human existence - not partisan nationalism, which Renoir argues is arbitrary and unnatural (Lt. Rosenthal quips "Frontiers are an invention - nature doesn't give a hoot"), but things that ring deeply of greater truths like the love of a woman, or the taste of good food, or the innocence of a child. In one of the movie's most wrenching scenes, the men are pawing through a crate of women's clothes donated to the camp theater group in a great commotion which dies as one soldier emerges from off screen in full female garb, and the men are stricken dumb. Simultaneously, Renoir is able to foreground the denial these men are subjected because of war to and the importance of what they're missing from human existence, heightening the depravity of the former and placing the latter on a pedestal. It's one of the most moving scenes ever committed to celluloid.

Mike: The magic of the scene is that everyone realizes they are thinking the same thing, but they aren't so far removed that they fail to comprehend the total depravity of their urge. They don't know how to deal with their feeling, and certainly don't want to know how, so they essentially freeze up. It's quite simply one of the toughest moments.

James: Like any great film, La Grande Illusion is not a one-trick pony - there's a lot more going on than just a critique of war. There's a subtle social critique subcurrent running through the film. Typically, this sub-theme is brought up in terms of Capt. de Boieldieu, a wealthy upper crust Parisian. He's thrust into contact with men like Lt. Marechal, a man who says "The theater's too deep for me. I prefer bicycling." But he's unique; he doesn't come across as superior. Even when he's fastidiously washing his white gloves, he's detached from class concerns; he's just washing his gloves. But when he is befriended by Cpt. von Rauffenstein, a man with a similar background, he's suddenly confronted with the realization that he isn't like everyone else - he's a part of a breed that the war will render obsolete.

Mike: The predominant aspect that makes Grande Illusion so memorable is the duality of its message. At the theoretic height of ethnocentrism, Renoir emphasizes humanism and commonality. He shows war as something that only makes people do things no one should have to do, suffer in a way no one should have to suffer. This doesn't drive them to hate; it forces them to look for any positive in their life to avoid mental breakdown. This allows them to see similarities and good aspects in people that are supposed to be their enemies. His characters are not at war with one another; they are simply doing what's become their job or duty. The thing is, it's hard to act against someone that you don't have anything against and so much harder to act against someone who fills your needs. As war makes everyone's needs that much greater, it's pointlessness becomes more of a reality.

James: La Grande Illusion is remembered as a revolutionary work, a precursor to the 1950s and 60s French New Wave movement that itself was a precursor to the Modernist movement that swept the entire world in the late 60s. And indeed, the film comes off as shockingly modern, even sixty-four years after the fact.

Mike: We've yet to see a time when everyone is at peace. Thus, the illusion that there is a winner in war, and that it's a viable solution over respect, tolerance, and compromise is still present. More importantly, the overriding themes of love, friendship, respect, and fun (particularly the need for humor) are universal and timeless. These themes and the anti-war nature were so strong that the original print of La Grande Illusion was seized by the Nazis as anti regime propaganda piece when they occupied France during the war that took place after the illusion that WW1 ended all wars.

James: In a way, we, the sheltered American audience, are lucky with regards of our atmosphere towards the rules of film; it allows us to be more easily shocked and manipulated by nonstandard attempts such as this. It took me a good thirty minutes of furrowed-brow concentration before I realized that they weren't cutting along the lines of the story. Further complicating the issue is the manner in which the film handles dialogue. On occasion, snippets of the dialogue will be delivered in English, then for no reason they go back to French. I genuinely have no idea what the purpose of such linguistic bait-and-switch was, but I can attest to its disorienting tendencies. Perhaps Renoir knew that his true audience wouldn't be until many years down the road.

Mike: Like war, language is something that brings people together or divides them. In Renoir's movie, it does both. You mentioned the scene where Marechal begs to hear French, but it's counterpointed with the scene where he learns his first German words. Although the characters in La Grande Illusion are defined by their race, nationality, religion, and financial standing what the film really shows is that everyone has something in common and can grow together if they choose to. What they have in common to begin with might be ever so slight, but it's there. The problem is other things, like war, get in the way of people choosing to explore their commonalties.

James: Additionally, the performance is beyond reproach. Typically, in films of a language not native to the audience, the performance tends to come off as flat and weak. But even to me, who speaks no French or German, the characters came alive. Every character integral to the story is overflowing with depth, but never reveals enough up front to allow the audience to really get under their skin. The lone exception is Cpt. von Rauffenstein, who bares his soul to Lt. de Boieldieu and seems eager to engage in a friendship with his so-called enemy. As a result, he comes off as a tragic hero, as a man who tried to be human in inhumane circumstances. And yet, despite his appeal, I found myself more preoccupied with the central characters Marechal, de Boieldieu, and Rosenthal, laboring to figure out how they could achieve humanity. And in this struggle, I realized why the characters are so standoffish - because if they were identifiable, they would be human. And if the characters were human, then there's no reason to have the film at all.

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Mike: The characters are human, but humans are altered by the inhumane circumstances of war. Von Rauffenstein seems the most human because he is out of date and in denial for most of the film. Furthermore, his heart is more and more broken as he's forced, largely by de Boieldieu, to come to grips with the brutal truth. Von Stroheim's performance was awesome. He was nicknamed "The Man You Love To Hate" because he was frequently cast as an evil stereotypical German military officer, but his two most memorable performances, Billy Wilder's classic Sunset Blvd being the other, show him as sympathetic albeit somewhat pitiful man out of time. Von Stroheim is clearly the top performer here. It's one of those performances where everything about the character is in conflict, yet somehow it not only comes together but is imbedded into your brain.

James: It's hard to find anything wrong with La Grande Illusion. Quite frankly, it's a masterwork, and deserves all of the accolades it receives. It's the ultra-rare work of art that's able to either provide a chilling account of why war is horrible or why we should continue to get out of bed every morning, and I just don't know if there's another movie out there that can do both. It's not a movie to be entered into lightly; due to the fact that it's SO different from any movie being made today, it's an intense experience that after watching, I likened to being shoved in a sack and thrown in a river. But it's certainly not an experience that should be missed by anyone who enjoys the art of movies, or the art of life.

James Cobo
Mike Lorefice

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