Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Masterpiece Test: Grand Illusion

Year of Release  1937
Country  France
Length  114 min.
Director  Jean Renoir
Screenwriters  Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak
Cinematographer  Christian Matras
Editors  Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir
Art Director  Eugene Lourie
Costume Designer  Rene Decrais
Cast  Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio, Erich von Stroheim, Dita Parlo

There was a time when Grand Illusion was considered one of the best, if not the single best, films of all time.  It was the first non-English language to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.  At the 1958 Brussels World Fair, the film was one of ten declared to be the most “artistically fulfilled” in the world’s first international poll of critics and filmmakers.  On The Dick Cavett Show, Orson Welles named it as one of the movies he would take with him of the “ark” (he couldn’t even come up with an equal choice, eventually blurting out “…and something else”).  Woody Allen frequently cites it as the best film ever made.  And it was the very first entry in the prestigious Criterion Collection, a group of DVDs that is as close as our cinema culture is going to come to an official list of the greatest films ever made.

While Grand Illusion is still generally considered by most serious cineastes to be a great film, its status has nonetheless decreased in recent years.  The reputation of Jean Renoir’s film has been eclipsed by that of his own Rules of the Game (1939), which Paul Schrader declared to be greatest film of all time in the essay that inspired this series of “Masterpiece Tests”, and by Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), the film that virtually always tops Sight and Sound’s once-in-a-decade critic and filmmaker poll of cinema’s ten greatest works.  In an issue of the seminal film magazine Cahiers du cinema Francois Truffaut described Grand Illusion as “the least eccentric of all of Renoir’s French movies,” and this seems to have influenced the way that most people think of the film today; a great film, sure, but a safe classic to be assigned for homework rather than something with any real contemporary resonance.

It is true that Grand Illusion is one of Renoir’s more classically styled films.  It doesn’t have the radical polyphonic structure of Rules of the Game, or the insouciant wit of Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), and it is not as flamboyantly quirky as something like La chienne (1931) or The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936).  Nor does the film qualify as a summation of everything that the cinema was capable of up to that point, the way that Citizen Kane does.  There is no flashy deep focus cinematography or rapid montage editing in Grand Illusion, and there is nothing in the film’s style that would obviously alienate a “bourgeois” audience.

And yet Grand Illusion is a war film without a single battle scene, a film made in the middle of WWII that features sympathetic characters on both sides, and from all social classes, of its WWI setting.  Renoir and Charles Spaak’s script quietly defies the usual three-act structure, featuring a final set of scenes too long and too integral to the film’s narrative to be considered an epilogue.  Practically all of the film’s characters are in the military, but they virtually never show open hostility toward each other or regard their foreign opponents as the enemy.  While some of the German soldiers betray early hints of elements of the future Nazi ideology, they are largely depicted as men just doing their jobs, and in some respects they seem to take the gentlemanly etiquette of old-fashioned war more seriously than their French counterparts.  In one scene the German prison guards are shown subsisting on bread, water, and gruel, while their French prisoners are allowed to eat full meals, Renoir simultaneously reminding the viewer of the civility of pre-WWII combat and empathetically suggesting one of the base causes of German frustration that led to the barbarism of WWII. 

Grand Illusion is about the importance of peace and human civility, and it is full of nostalgia for the gentlemanly code of behavior that existed among foreign soldiers prior to WWII.  (It’s no wonder that Welles loved the film, as the characters in his own movies were so often haunted by the loss of their personal Edens.)  Still, Renoir is no fool, and he knows that the layer of graciousness and good manners of by-the-book military protocol was only a thin cover up for the brutality of war.  The “grand illusion” of the title is the idea that international conflicts can be resolved by whichever side plays the game the best, and that both sides will simply go back to being friends when the mess of the war is over.  Although only one character is shot onscreen (while creating a distraction to allow two of his friends to make a prison break), and no actual battle is depicted, Grand Illusion doesn’t let viewers forget the violent toll that war takes on soldiers and their families – not that 1937 audiences would need to be reminded.

Renoir’s morally complex and multi-faceted attitude toward the human cost of war is perhaps best summed up in the character of German Captain Rauffenstein, portrayed by Erich von Stroheim.  Of all the characters in the film, Rauffenstein is the one who believes most deeply in preserving a gentlemanly code of conduct during wartime.  The Captain is first shown inviting two gunned-down French soldiers – the working-class lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the aristocratic Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) – to a formal dinner, introducing them to their prison in the most polite way imaginable.  The festivities are interrupted by the awkwardly-timed news that another French soldier died during an aerial skirmish; this prompts Rauffenstein to insist with great solemnity on a moment of silence.  This ironic situation would’ve most likely been played for dark laughs in a post-Dr. Strangelove (1964) war film, as the contrast between the harshness of the situation and the aristocratic formality of Rauffenstein’s attitude toward it is indeed absurd.  But Renoir’s moral compass is too strong to make light of the deceased soldier’s plight, and he manages to poke holes in Rauffenstein’s attitude without holding him in contempt; indeed, Rauffenstein is simultaneously the character in the film who is most out of touch with the harsh realities of war, and the one who is the most sympathetic.  His ideals are noble, but they have no place on the battlefield, and they will be obsolete after his country is devastated at war’s end.

The complex characterization of Rauffenstein is aided immensely by the tragic weight of Stroheim’s performance.  With his monocle and regal military outfit, Rauffenstein is the very image of nobility, but his gloves cover burn marks and his clunky neck brace provides a constant reminder of how out of step the character’s aristocratic attitude is with the realities of his situation.  Although Renoir clearly recognizes the absurdity of Rauffenstein’s appearance, he refuses to ridicule the character – in much the same way that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger would go on to simultaneously satirize and emphasize with their militaristic main character in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) – and Stroheim’s sensitive, fully lived-in performance transforms this comic character into a tragic one.  It is one of the greatest performances in cinema history.  Rauffenstein’s final appearance, as he comforts Boedieu on his death bed after being forced (from the German Captain’s understandable perspective) to shoot him, is a real emotional knockout.

The aforementioned prison hospital scene is so strong, and so obviously an emotional climax, that it seems strange on first viewing that Renoir doesn’t simply end the film there.  He instead cuts to the story of the two French prisoners, Marechal and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), whom Boeldieu gave his life for.  But while it might have been effective enough for the film to simply confirm that Marechal and Rosenthal escaped from the German prison camp, following their subsequent adventures proves crucial to the points that Renoir is trying to make.  Hungry, cold, and tired, the two French soldiers eventually manage to find lodging with a German farm woman (Dita Parlo) who agrees to hide them until they are ready to move on.  Aside from allowing for some of the film’s most stunning imagery (one doesn’t think of Grand Illusion as a particularly “composed” film, but cinematographer Christian Matras captures many casually beautiful shots), this section of the film provides more reminders of the toll that war takes on families.  In one heartbreaking moment, the farmer tells the soldiers about her various family members who have died in the war, the camera tracking across their pictures and finally settling on an empty dinner table far too big for just the farmer and her daughter. 

With the narrative structure of his film, Renoir is suggesting that the “grand illusion” of the aristocratic nobles represented by Rauffenstein is over, and that the true story of war lies with both the working grunts represented by Marechal and Rosenthal, and the suffering families represented by the farmer.  Renoir’s approach is not simplistically schematic; all of these characters are fully rounded and complex, with the working-class Marechal believing just as strongly as Rauffenstein that the end of the war will simply bring things back to “normal.”  Obviously that is not the way that history worked out, but Renoir ends the film on a graceful note of hope, with the German gunmen who have been hunting down Marechal and Rosenthal pausing and allowing them to live as they cross the border into neutral Switzerland.  The rules are absurd – as Rosenthal points out, the borders are manmade and unnatural – but at least they allow opportunities for the simple human decency that modern warfare tends to stamp out.  That lesson is still as vital today as it was in 1937, and so is Grand Illusion.

Grand Illusion passes the Masterpiece Test.

UP NEXT  From a film starring Erich von Stroheim to a film that he directed, Greed.

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