Cine-East Film Club #4: 1937, La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir)

by George_East on April 29, 2012

A second war film.  But this is a very different kind of war film to Cine-East #2, Kanal.  That film is unrelentingly bleak in its depiction of the last remnants of the Warsaw Uprising groping their way through the sewer system in the Second World War to their inevitable death at the hands of the Nazis because of the deliberate failure of the Soviets to intervene.  It demonstrates man at his most evil and humanity’s condition at its most hopeless.

La Grande Illusion is instead a humanist examination of the ties that bind and the lies that divide.  It is a war film in which only one shot is fired.  It is the granddaddy of the prisoner of war escape film, which would be so popular after the Second World War.  That scene in The Great Escape where the prisoners mix the earth from the tunnel they are digging into the garden they are cultivating in the prison grounds through sacks in their trouser legs is a direct quote from La Grande Illusion. As is the tunnel collapse on the tunnel digger leading to his hurried pulling out by his comrades covered in dirt and barely alive.

Jean Renoir, the greatest of all humanist film directors, made the film in the Popular Front period in France and it is infused with the politics of the period.  It reflects though the beginnings of skepticism about the possibility of a united left  effecting change when compared to some of Renoir’s earlier films (see for example Toni and La Crime de Monsiuer Lang).

It depicts a First World War in which the national divisions between France and Germany are in reality secondary to the class ties between the elites of both countries.  The main French officers shown are drawn from a mix of backgrounds, a product of the revolution that it had but Germany did not.  The ever brilliant Jean Gabin plays Lieutenant Marechal, a working class mechanic who has advanced to officer status with the French Air Force.  His commanding officer is the aristocratic, Capitain de Boeldieu (played with suitable hauteur by Pierre Fresnay).  Alongside these two, in the French officers camp they are sent to on being taken prisoner, they meet the wealthy Jewish Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and the actor, Cartier (Julienne Carette, who would go on to play the poacher in Renoir’s masterpiece of social satire La Regle du Jeu).

From the moment of their capture, Boeldieu bonds with the German commanding officer who takes him and Marechal prisoner, the equally aristocratic, Capitain von Rauffenstein (memorably  played by silent film director Erich Von Stroheim).  They are able to speak to each other in German, French and English.  They have, before the war, been to the same clubs in Paris; lusted after the same show girls.  They are part of a European wide aristocracy, which is seeing the last of its influence and power being obliterated in the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme.  As Rauffenstein says for him and Boeldieu death in war is a matter of honour and pride, for the others it is something to fear.

The film is divided into three parts.  The first part is in a prison camp in which the officers try to fulfil their duty to escape.  The insanity and pointlessness of the First World War is wonderfully illustrated by a scene which cuts from German celebration in the officers mess in the camp that their Army has taken a French town, to a gang show performance in the camp by the prisoners of war being interrupted by the news that the French have a day or so later re-taken the town leading to a rendition of the Marseillaise (which has none of the stirring romantic power of its famous use in Casablanca).  And then we discover in an aside another day or so later that the town had once again fallen to the Germans.  Blackadder Goes Forth springs very much to mind. Pointless, needless loss over scraps of land.  The illusion of glory.  The illusion of significance.

The second part, sees the key officers transferred to a prisoner of war camp in a Schloss, the night before they are due to escape through the tunnel they are digging.  As they are about to transfer Marechal tries desperately to tell the incoming officers that there is a tunnel in one of the dormitories that they can use to get out.  But the incoming officers are English and don’t have a word of French.  Plus ca change.  The Schloss is commanded by Rauffenstein, now a major but consigned to a humiliating command of a prison camp as a result of suffering a broken spine and severe burns.  He has a neck brace with a chin prop leading to a stiff and even more aristocratic bearing.  He immediately renews his bond with Boeldieu.  Rauffenstein is aware that his and Boeldieu’s class are a dying class  and that with them certain military values will disappear.

Rauffenstein’s treatment of the prisoners is impeccable.  Among them are a group of Russian officers and, of course, Rosenthal. An officer is an officer, even if Boeldieu is in a different class.  Renoir subtly notes that the passing of the values of Rauffenstein and Boeldieu and war as a matter of gentlemanly honour, will also have disastrous effects.  With the Nazi regime in Germany, the film points to a future when eliminationist values and racial ideology will determine how particular prisoners are treated.  Boldieu will sacrifice himself in order to allow Marechal and Rosenthal to escape to Rauffenstein’s horror, he will be left with no choice but to shoot Boldieu.  The illusion of national honour.  The illusion of duty.

The final part of the film follows Rosenthal and Marechal’s escape to Switzerland and their holing up with a German war widow and her young daughter.  The widow has lost her husband, and two brothers in the war, again emphasising its pointlessness.  She has no French, Marechal has no German but they become lovers. Attraction and affection are human qualities that are not nationally determined the film says.  Another illusion.

In the final sequence as they are about to make a run for it and escape across the Swiss border, Marechal and Rosenthal reflect on the insanity of war and how they hope that after the experience of the First World War, there won’t be another.  This  is perhaps the grandest illusion of all.

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