Grand Illusion (1937, Jean Renoir)
The rare film in a language other than English that managed to garner significant mainstream attention in America in the 1930s, Jean Renoir’s classic Grand Illusion is not an easy picture to pare down to an appreciable thesis. If anything, the core of it seems insignificant or even trite on paper. What matters is its joyously thorny complexity as a portrait of a cross section of humanity: it’s full of music and life but is finally a story about futility, and its compassionate humor is suffused with untold despair and profound loss.
The son of Impressionist pioneer Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the director is frequently cited as the first and greatest humanist of cinema; without calling attention to itself in any technical or aesthetic sense until the finale, Grand Illusion seems to swim in its own sort of idiosyncratic beauty. The movie follows the lives of French prisoners of war during WWI; dating from 1937, it is one of the first films of its kind and was so incisive that Hitler tried to destroy all copies during the Occupation.
Bursting with clarity and (surprisingly) comic energy, it seems designed to be what it ultimately became: a universal story about the stupidity of war. Very little of it feels distinctly French or European. And the message is indeed powerful, ringing true to this day, with both the prisoners and imprisoners frail, human, simply responding to “duty,” all of them mere people thrown into chaos. The oft-discussed varying backgrounds of the men serve only to make their commonalities more striking. There are no enemies. A key scene has a German officer comforting a prisoner he has shot, a great soldier who was helping others escape, who tells his murderer, “I would have done the same thing.” Whittling war down to its essence, of individuals destroyed, it is hard to ignore the ways that freedom becomes compromised, sometimes perversely in the very name of freedom. World War I might have been an unusually precise model for war as pointless brutality, but the film is about the future as much as the past, made as fascism loomed in Europe — and its sadness exists on what today remains a permanent, universal continuum.
The ideas are communicated subtly and well, and they are artfully delivered, but the all-encompassing truth of this film comes from eyes, expressions, voices, vivid characters. The story is never out front; it lives within these subtleties. That’s why this is not really a young person’s film. (It seems relevant to mention that when I last saw it, at age 21, I understood its themes but was totally unmoved by it; eleven years later, I could barely hold back tears for the entire film. With age comes such gravity.) Its wisdom becomes clearer, more knowing as we grow with it. The men in the barracks are a thorny, messy and not easily simplified group of people, but the blood that runs through this narrative is the same as that coarsing through the organic collective they embody. The camaraderie between them does not hide behind petty dignity; there is honesty and acceptance here, even if it doesn’t extend to a resignation. Most of the men spend the first two acts of the film on one escape attempt or another. There’s a tunnel. There are flutes. There are twelfth century towers. It may be the result of the omnipresent “buddy” war movies that have cropped up since 1938, particularly in America, most of them probably heavily influenced by this film, but everything about these relationships seems palpable, lived-in. The actors are so uniformly good it seems barely valuable to single any of them out, though Erich von Stroheim’s conflicted, warm but classist German officer puts across the confused loyalties of a finally good-hearted but privileged person’s forced endurance of war in both words and mannerisms impeccably.
The most famous moments of Grand Illusion are weighted heavily toward its last half-hour, at which point a successful escape of two prisoners significantly darkens its tone. First comes the death of Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), the aristocrat who has engaged in distraction tactics to help his friends get away. Major von Rauffenstein (von Stroheim), the upper-crust German whose inner torture is so obvious, is forced to shoot him although they have become relatively close; his reaction upon later witnessing a hospitalized de Boeldieu’s final moments is unforced, stoic but heartbreaking. Meanwhile, we follow the escapees Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) through the wilderness — at one point they nearly break apart in their desperation and angst, but something continues to bond them. A particularly emotional sequence finds them happening upon a German farm and the kind widow Elsa (Dita Parlo) who lives there; she lost nearly all of her family to the war — during “victories” for her country — and takes solace in the presence of the men, especially Maréchal. This series of scenes, along with others that call ahead to the likes of Casablanca, has been all but reenacted in other films (and in fairness, it owes more than a little — as do a few parts of Renoir’s film — to All Quiet on the Western Front) but never with such stirring restraint and subtlety. The ache is palpable in every silent exchange of glances.
Finally we are led into one last simple expression of the arbitrary elements of war, not just this war but any war, when a German patrol finds the duo but they are saved by the invisible border of Switzerland. We leave them trudging together through the snow in one of the most famous and gorgeous shots in screen history, their destiny uncertain but somehow already sealed, for this is their story quite specifically but also a story of a civilization still mired in the cruelties of war itself. Maréchal and Rosenthal’s story never ends, nor can ours.
[Includes portions of a review from 2005.]