by George Sax
Hope amid the horror
It’s really impossible to adequately appreciate the great French director Jean Renoir’s two 1930s masterworks, The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion, easily two of the greatest films ever, except through historical hindsight. They need to be considered in the light of the devastating war that enveloped Europe, and much of the rest of the world, after they appeared.
No old film can be experienced, of course, as it was by its contemporary audiences. This is especially true of these two. Each in its way can now be seen as pointing toward the conflict and carnage that followed: Rules with a bitingly witty, almost savage irony, and Illusion, in a hope-generating, inadvertent way.
It might not be too ambitious a stretch to suggest that in Grand Illusion (1937) Renoir is trying to send an implicit plea to Europeans to avoid another futile, very destructive conflict. Two years later, in Rules, his poetic impulses seem to have become more pointedly pessimistic. It’s not incidental that the later film was set in the present, and the first one during the First World War, toward which even the French had begun to acquire some perspective by the mid-to-late-1930s. Grand Illusion is implicitly an anti-war work, but one that’s ostensibly a prisoner-of-war adventure. Its abhorrence of war’s horrors and waste is inherent in the film, but Renoir doesn’t make that violence and suffering explicit, for the most part, unlike Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). But it would be difficult to mistake Renoir and his film’s sentiments, even if you respond to its very well-engineered narrative and scenes as entertainment, as they surely are. It’s at least mildly interesting to reflect that this film seems to have set-up a rough template for many subsequent prison-camp movies, like Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953) and John Sturge’s The Great Escape (1963). But almost all of them dealt with the Second World War, then still in the future, and Renoir set his film in a war that had ended almost two decades earlier. Both wars were terrible and historically pivotal, but different.
Today’s movie audiences have an enhanced opportunity to reassess Grand Illusion thanks to French media giant Canal’s newly released and restored edition of the film, one said to recreate the look and sound it had when it was first released. In 1937, it was immensely successful financially and critically, the highest-grossing film in France that year. Renoir treated the late war as a period when lingering traditional modes of life and warfare were radically altered, in a sort of awful creative destruction. (You can get a brief but stark, if somewhat sanitized, image of this in Steven Spielberg’s recent War Horse, when an old-fashioned cavalry charge is decimated by the Germans’ new rapid-fire guns.) In its fashion, Grand Illusion is about the destruction of an older world by the 20th century. Renoir is suggesting that there’s the possibility of a better, more socially equitable world arising from the ruins of “The Great War,” but he was probably influenced as much by 1930s political conditions and ideas as by historical reality.
Renoir pursues his ideas through the story of three French military officers held captive by the German forces, and their developing relations with each other, the other prisoners and their captors, and eventually with one German officer in particular. As in most of the prison-camp movies that followed, much of the prisoners’ time and energy is devoted to hatching and effecting escape plans. Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is a member of the Parisian working class; Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a scion of a Rothschild-like Jewish banking clan; and Capt. Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), from the French aristocracy. Billeted together in camp, these men of widely disparate social origins must learn to cooperate and to respect each other in stressed and circumscribed circumstances. It’s true that Renoir has imposed a rather arbitrary schematic situation on his film, but he finesses the material so skillfully that he almost always gets away with it. For instance, he turns the deep-rooted French anti-Semitism into an opportunity for an engaging storyline about Rosenthal’s receipt of family care packages whose contents he shares with the others. He confides to Maréchal—who has never even heard of Rosenthal’s illustrious family—that he does it to show that Jews aren’t really stingy, and to feed his own sense of superiority. (I’ve always found the expert Dalio’s performance a little too ripe.)
But amid the tension, scheming, and makeshift friendships, the most interesting relationship, almost a doomed bromance, is between Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), the commandant in the second camp to which the men are sent. The German privileges the Frenchman in small but important ways because they are social equals. The genially ironic and skeptically amused Boeldieu accepts the diminished authority of his social class as an unavoidable consequence of the rise of bourgeois democracy. The Prussian officer is more resentful.
Renoir holds out the promise of a transcendence of the old decadent order that produced the war, but his “message” is ruefully anachronistic now. He devised it in the untenably collaborative political moment of the French Popular Front. In 1935, Moscow gave the French Communists permission to cooperate with other leftists, and even centrist liberals, in the face of a revitalized rightist challenge. The sympathetic Renoir had worked amicably with various leftist factions and his film reflects the tenor of this cooperative period. By 1939, in Rules, his vision has become darkly satirical, more cynically amused and unhopeful.
Taking the long view, Renoir’s idea in Grand Illusion was prescient, if not in the way he intended. The war he and others sought to avoid came in a bloody trial of recreative destruction. Of the two films, Rules is the greater, a credible candidate as the greatest French film ever made. But Grand Illusion, for all its impossible hopefulness, is still one hell of a movie.
Watch the trailer for Grand Illusion
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