La Grande Illusion

Tuesday, 3 January 2006

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #1: Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion

This movie is a pow­er­ful an­ti-war film that will nev­er­the­less be a bit dif­fi­cult for me to keep in con­text since its mes­sage to­day has like­ly changed sig­nif­i­cant­ly since it was first shot. At a most ba­sic lev­el, this is a World War I prison es­cape film. At an­oth­er lev­el it is an il­lus­tra­tion of a par­a­digm shift: the de­struc­tion of the old world aris­toc­ra­cy and birth of the mod­ern so­cial con­tract. Permeating all of this is the Grand Illusion it­self; that na­tion­al­ism and pa­tri­o­tism lim­it more than they spec­i­fy. This point comes across with the most ef­fi­ca­cy when Maréchal [Jean Gabin] and Rosenthal [Marcel Dalio] are about to cross the bor­der from Germany to Switzerland af­ter es­cap­ing from their prison camp. After Maréchal says that he can’t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween Germany and Switzerland, Rosenthal states “Frontiers are an in­ven­tion of men. Nature doesn’t give a hoot.” Throughout the film, the ide­o­log­i­cal cre­ations of men con­sis­tent­ly ap­pear to cause more harm than good.

This strong neg­a­tive theme is bal­anced and, I think, ul­ti­mate­ly out­weighed by the con­sis­tent­ly pos­i­tive be­hav­ior of un­re­strict­ed hu­man na­ture. This ten­sion is what keeps La Grande Illusion ap­plic­a­ble af­ter all of these years. The film was shot in 1937, on the cusp of World War II, and re­con­struct­ed from frag­ments by Renoir af­ter the war. It was a huge hit be­fore the war, but like the lin­er notes for the DVD men­tion, af­ter the hor­rors of WWII it served as a re­minder that the Germans were peo­ple too.

Time and time again, be­tween Erich von Stroheim’s crip­pled Capt. von Rauffenstein and Pierre Fresnay’s Capt. de Boeldieu, be­tween the German wid­ow Elsa [whose en­tire male fam­i­ly has been killed in Germany’s “great­est vic­to­ries”] and Maréchal and even be­tween the French Jew Rosenthal and Maréchal, we see peo­ple that would get along fa­mous­ly if the war wasn’t in the way. Ironically, they’d nev­er be to­geth­er in the first place with­out the war, but be­cause of it, du­ty be­comes in­ex­tri­ca­bly bound with re­gret. von Rauffenstein is forced to shoot de Boeldieu who is sac­ri­fic­ing him­self so that Maréchal and Rosenthal can es­cape. Afterward, he is wracked by re­gret that his du­ty made him kill a man he con­sid­ered a friend. As both an hon­or to de Boeldieu and pun­ish­ment to him­self, von Rauffenstein clips the flower off of his gera­ni­um, the on­ly flower in the en­tire cas­tle. [I must ad­mit that I got a bit misty right there. Erich von Stroheim is such a good ac­tor.] Similarly, Maréchal must re­turn to France and the fight­ing, leav­ing be­hind Elsa, with whom he has fall­en in love. He promis­es to re­turn, but in war there is slim chance he will do so.

The Grand Illusion is that there is any­thing hon­or­able about war. The on­ly good acts oc­cur when the char­ac­ters act from their hearts, and the bad acts oc­cur when they bow to du­ty.