Stars: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim
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If you want to work in the visual medium of film, it surely can't hurt to be the son of a master painter and French writer/director Jean Renoir must have reaped the benefits of being the son of renowned impressionist master Pierre-August Renoir, beyond being the subject of many of his paintings and having the luxury of selling some of those he inherited to finance his films. He paid enough attention to write a biography of him, Renoir, My Father. However he also had the good fortune to be the brother of a noted actor of stage and film, Pierre Renoir; and the nephew of a cinematographer, Claude Renoir. Sometimes it seems as if the visual arts were a destiny he simply couldn't avoid but he excelled on his own merits and became a name worthy of mention alongside his father's with films not just made in France but in the US and India too. Talk about a daunting prospect, to be the next in a line that included names like these.
Grand Illusion was not his first great work, as by 1937 he was in his fourteenth year as a director with films like The Bitch and Boudu Saved from Drowning already behind him, but it may be his first masterpiece. Perhaps the greatest anti-war picture of all time, it was successful in his native France but banned in Nazi Germany, both achievements of note in 1937, and it began a spark of genius which lasted until the outbreak of the war and included The Human Beast and Rules of the Game, which is often listed as the greatest foreign language film or simply the greatest film ever made. Having seen all three, I like Rules of the Game least, though audiences of the time went much further to meet it with derision and turn it into his greatest commercial failure. It's certainly a subtle piece and I'm well aware that I may just not see the depths that its vehement supporters do. Of the three it's Grand Illusion that stands out most for me.
It's one of those wonderful films that works on many different levels: it would be enjoyable as a ride, pure and simple, but it's even more enjoyable to delve through its many depths which are never too deep as to be unapproachable. Renoir deserves most credit for this, as both director and co-writer, but nobody lets the side down, not least the three leading stars. Two are French: Jean Gabin, often referred to as the French Bogart, and Pierre Fresnay, who was apparently Alec Guinness's favourite actor, hardly a minor accolade if not an official one. The third is Austrian: Erich von Stroheim, far better known to western eyes through his work in Hollywood as both actor and director, especially in the silent era. In keeping with a multinational cast, it treats all nationalities with equal respect, even though it's set during World War I with characters and actors from the nation who was then and was about to again become France's mortal enemy.
Von Stroheim plays Capt von Rauffenstein, an aristocratic German flying ace, and if you've ever seen him act you already have a picture in your head of just how clipped and aristocratic. When we meet him, he's celebrating the downing of his twelfth French plane in a composed manner that could have been applied to the first duck of the season. He asks his staff, without any hint of irony, that if any survivors are officers they should be promptly invited to lunch. They do indeed turn out to be officers, Fresnay as staff officer Capt de Boeldieu and Gabin as Lt Maréchal, who is a pilot, the pair on a reconnaissance flight to clarify a grey smudge on a prior photograph. Renoir knows precisely what this role called for as he was a French Air Force pilot himself and in fact Gabin even wears Renoir's own uniform. I wonder if he ever had the privilege of being treated as well as Maréchal is treated by his new host who sees them as welcome guests.
Rauffenstein is utterly of the old school. He is serious about his respect, which extends not just to the courtesy of pulling out their chairs and sharing his food but to honest conversation that proves the sides have more than a war in common. Maréchal, whose arm was broken in the crash, shares a profession with the German soldier who cuts his food: they're both engineers. Rauffenstein knows Boeldieu's cousin Edmond, the Count de Boeldieu, who serves as a military attaché in Paris. When wreaths pass through the room, memorials to the French dead from the men who killed them, they all stand as Rauffenstein salutes them: 'May the earth lie lightly on our valiant enemy.' It's at once entirely civilised and utterly surreal, as it's hardly what we expect from a war movie nowadays. It doesn't last though, as both prisoners are promptly transported to the Hallbach prisoner of war camp, where we spend almost half the film.
It's in how these opinions connect people that Grand Illusion shows its real genius, because the connections aren't where you think. There are no good guys or bad guys here, merely soldiers, from a number of armies but especially French and German. Yet the sides aren't important, as if these soldiers didn't particularly recognise them: the Germans are the guards and the French are the prisoners, but that seems more like rules to a game than anything else. They're playing POW camp but it might as well be Monopoly for the amount of fraternisation that goes on. Only rarely does fighting even enter into the picture and then only incidentally like when Maréchal interrupts their stage review to start singing La Marseilleise because the German papers have announced that the French have retaken Douaumont. While this isn't up to the rendition in Casablanca, which it influenced, it's rousing nonetheless and it gets Maréchal put into a cell.
He's still there growing a beard when the Germans retake Douaumont, which promptly becomes a footnote in our story as well as the war. 'Isn't that awful?' one soldier says. 'Can't be much left of it,' says another. In Maréchal's cell, even as he insults his guard, shouting out that he wants to hear a French voice and see the light, the guard brings him a mouth organ and some cigarettes. These scenes let us know that these are all patriotic men, proud of their countries and willing to fight or serve to protect them. It's almost a primal urge, as Maréchal suggests to his compatriots as soldiers process past their window playing fife and drum. 'It's not the music that gets to you,' he points out, 'it's the marching feet.' Yet regardless of the posturing of the powerful, there's precious little difference between these officers, regardless of which army they're in. They have a shared sense of duty and shared experience to bind them together and adapt past the rest.
We soon discover that the differences that are harder to get past aren't those between people of different nationalities but between people of different classes, one discussion even classifying fatal diseases on a class basis. Rules of the Game is supposed to be Renoir's great meditation on class, but this fits that bill too, as it's the key to the whole film. Boeldieu is an aristocrat, while Maréchal is working class, an engineer by trade. Rosenthal is nouveau riche, born in Jerusalem to a Jewish family who acquired wealth and property in France. They bond as French officers, albeit distinguishable ones through opinion and attitude, and in another film that would be the end of it. Here, there are other connections, most obviously the one between Boeldieu and Rauffenstein which is renewed when the French officers are moved on to other camps, eventually reaching Wintersborn, a 12th century mountain fortress of stone and iron which he now commands.
The grand illusion of the title is the idea that what was still known in 1937 as the Great War was the war to end all wars, an idea disproved two years later when it was renamed to accommodate another one. Most anti-war movies, including prior classics like All Quiet on the Western Front and Westfront 1918 are full of the horrors of war, the violence and terror and the dehumanising effect on the participants. In Grand Illusion, we don't see a moment of action, the war effort being restricted to incidentals like the same method to hide tunnel earth that was used in The Great Escape. The anti-war sentiment here isn't that war is inherently evil but that it fails to achieve anything positive, even when someone wins. There's no commentary on the reasons why the war began or on the Nazi plague sweeping Europe, beyond tantalisingly fleshing out a lead character as Jewish but without a single stereotype. War itself is the only specific target.
It offers no specific answers either, or perhaps it offers a variety of them depending on class. For the lower classes, the scenes after Maréchal and Rosenthal escape from the Wintersborn fortress explain that going back to the front to help win the war and so help to end it is pointless. Still deep in enemy territory, they find the house of Elsa, a German woman with a young daughter. Her husband was killed at Verdun and her brothers killed in other battles, some of the biggest German successes of the war, but the only result is that her table is now too big. For aristocrats, there really is no answer as they are rapidly becoming anachronisms, through what Rauffenstein describes as 'a charming legacy of the French Revolution.' They are career officers, raised to serve as combatants not bureaucrats, which Rauffenstein is revolted to have become because of his injuries. A fine career is what Boeldieu's cousin had: to lose an arm and marry a rich woman.
'I don't know who will win this war,' he tells his prisoner and friend, 'but whatever the outcome, it will mean the end of the Rauffensteins and the Boeldieus.' He's melancholy about the future and the geranium he keeps in his room is obviously representative of himself and his particular way of life. When Boeldieu sets up the escape of Maréchal and Rosenthal, using himself as diversion, he forces Rauffenstein to shoot him, but before he dies we realise that in dying both of them feel that he has won. 'For a commoner, dying in a war is tragedy,' he points out, 'but for you and me it's a good way out.' Rauffenstein can only admit that, by surviving with horrific injuries instead of going down in flames, he has missed his opportunity and faced with what he promptly calls a futile existence, he snips his geranium. Now there is nothing left of beauty in the fortress, as Von Stroheim superbly echoes by losing all light in his eyes after he shoots down his friend.
While Erich von Stroheim was long established before Grand Illusion, his legendary directorial career already over, Jean Renoir's was just taking off and I wonder how much they discussed the film and its aims. Given that he was renowned as a perfectionist who demanded authenticity in his props, I wouldn't be surprised to find the brace he wore was real and he wore it throughout production or that he adjusted his character in many small ways. His legacy is hard to quantify because much of his impact came through the knowledge he passed down to great directors while working for them as an actor. Jean Gabin's legacy is huge and perhaps most notable in how his French films of the thirties influenced Hollywood in the forties. He isn't called the French Bogart for nothing, but it's because the iconic style Bogart thrived in once he left his supporting days at Warner Brothers behind was taken from Gabin rather than the other way around.
Gabin made his name in France with films for Julien Duvivier, beginning with Maria Chapdelaine in 1934 and progressing through four more including the wonderful Pépé le Moko before joining up with Renoir for this film, which made him an international star. His work during this period is amazing, including The Human Beast for Renoir and Port of Shadows and Daybreak for Marcel Carné. Never the prettiest of actors, he's perfect for the role of Maréchal, Renoir casting these actors not just for their talent but also for their faces. Gabin plays the everyman in this film, a French military officer but still very much one of the boys. His earthy portrayal grounds the story to those of us who aren't privy to the subtle rituals of the aristocracy. His scenes in the cell at Wintersborn are superbly played, far more realistic than the cooler equivalent shown by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and all the more powerful for that.
While Gabin and von Stroheim interact, the actor really tasked with playing off both of them is Pierre Fresnay, far less well known than either of his co-stars but perhaps regarded even higher by those in the know. While Gabin was the favourite actor of Sergio Leone, Fresnay was that of Sir Alec Guinness, which hardly surprises here, given that he plays Capt de Boeldieu precisely as you might expect Guinness to play him. He had been established longer than Gabin, especially through a trilogy of Marcel Pagnol plays brought to the screen by Alexander Korda, Marc Allégret and Pagnol himself: Marius, Fanny and César, in which he played Marius. He's tasked here with finding common ground with both the lower and upper classes and in fact with bridging the gap through his actions. It isn't a small task but he makes it seem easy, peppering his performance with observations like, 'Out there children play like soldiers. In here soldiers play like children.'
All three performances are multi-faceted and gloriously played, as are supporting roles by Dita Parlo as Elsa and many French actors who went by one name. Keeping them all in focus is Jean Renoir, who directed the film and also co-wrote it with Charles Spaak, and he shines brightest here for a number of reasons. There isn't a moment that is wasted, every detail adding more to the depth of it. Not a moment is overplayed, this being a truly subtle message movie, so subtle that while the themes are readily apparent, the variations on them are gently played enough that you'll find new insight with every viewing. Best of all, it works on multiple levels so you can sit back and simply enjoy or delve deeper, depending on your mood. It's films like this and The Seventh Seal that refresh our understanding of what a masterpiece really is and restore our perspectives. I should watch these two films every couple of years just to enforce that.