La Grande illusion (Grand Illusion) Reviews
Renoir was the son of French impressionist painter Pierre Auguste-Renior but was mainly raised by Gabrielle Renard, his nanny and mother's cousin. Renard introduced him to Guignol puppet shows in Montmartre, France, which would influence his film career. Writing in his 1974 memoirs, Renoir said, "She taught me to see the face behind the mask and the fraud behind the flourishes. She taught me to detest the cliché." Renard also introduced him to the new invention of motion pictures taking him to see his first film as a young boy. Renoir would often be featured in many of his father's paintings and due to his father's success, he was schooled at fashionable boarding houses.
When World War I broke out in August 1914, Renoir joined the French cavalry. He later served as a reconnaissance pilot after receiving a bullet in the leg. He would walk with a limp the rest of his life, but while recovering from his leg injury he was able to discover the world of cinema through the works of Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith while he recuperated. At the suggestion of his father, Renoir started working with ceramics after the war, but soon felt compelled to take a hand at film, being influenced by the films of Erich von Stroheim. In 1924, he would make his first of nine silent films.
He gained international success during the 1930's but it wasn't until 1937's "Grand Illusion," that he solidified his stature as a great filmmaker. "Grand Illusion" was not only, arguably, his best film, but was the first foreign film ever to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture of the Year. The idea for the film was influenced by an old friend of Renoir named Pinsard, who was now the commander of an air base near where Renoir was filming the 1935 film "Toni." Pinsard recalled the numerous times he escaped German POW camps during World War I and Renoir believed this would make an interesting film. Renoir had Pinsard write everything down and spoke to more POW's and then added his own wartime experiences. He and Charles Spaak wrote the screenplay together.
There are three main French characters that come from different aspects of life, one an aristocrat named Captain de Boeldieu, played by veteran French stage actor Pierre Fresnay; working class Lieutenant Marechal, played by the most popular French screen actor at the time Jean Gabin; and a Jew named Lieutenant Rosenthal played by one of Renoir's favorite actors Marcel Dalio.
After de Boeldieu and Marechal are shot down by a German aviator and aristocrat named Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim, most well known for his role as Norma Desmond's butler in Billy Wilder's 1950 film "Sunset Boulevard") while on a reconnaissance mission. They are captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp. Upon arriving they meet their fellow prisoners and Marechal learns of a plan to escape through a tunnel the prisoners have been digging for two months. The escape element of the film has been copied and imitated in such films as "The Great Escape," "Stalag 17" and "The Great Raid." This may be the main goal of these characters, this is hardly what the film is about.
This is a "war film" that is so far removed from the trenches, such as when the prisoners attempt to put on a musical revue full with costumes sent from Rosenthal's family in Paris. Leading up to the performance the Germans announce that their army had taken Fort Douamont in what will go down as the bloodiest battle in the war, the Battle of Verdun. The prisoners think they should cancel the performance, but Marechal says that this was all the more reason to put the show on and that they should also invite the German officers. In what is possibly the film's second best scene, it is during the performance that word comes that the French has retaken the fort, prompting Marechal to interrupt the show. An Englishman in drag then leads the prisoners in a singing of the French national anthem "La Marseillaise" as Renoir slowly moves the camera around to show the French and English soldiers singing and the German soldiers reacting to this news. Marechal is then put in solitary confinement and it's ironic that during this time the fort is recaptured by the Germans, as if their celebration was futile and premature. As soon as Marechal is released from solitary confinement the prisoners are told they are being moved to another camp, so the escape is off.
At the new camp, Stroheim's character Rauffenstein is reintroduced. He is so stiff and proper like what a Prussian aristocrat in the German army should act. In contrast to Gabin's Marechal he looks regal. His perfect white gloves, monocle and corset all add to his performance. Rauffenstein is happy to see de Boeldieu. He shows his new prisoners around the prison and he and de Boeldieu often lapse into speaking English to one another. Rauffenstein even apologizes to de Boeldieu that he couldn't give him his own room, to which de Boeldieu responds that he never would've accepted. Marechal and Rosenthal continue plotting their escape in their new camp.
Some scenes show the prisoners talking about the outside world and suggesting that they conveniently forgotten problems of the outside. That life in the POW camp is a lot better than the trenches. There are so many scenes where soldiers of all nationalities feel a kindred spirit with one another, a brotherhood, so to say. They feel sympathetic towards one another. They all know what each other is going through, even the German officers are sympathetic to their prisoners.
There's a scene where the Russians receive a crate they believe is full of vodka and caviar and wish to share it with the French prisoners as gratitude for their kindness. When opening the crate they find that it is full of books on geometry, algebra and cook books. The Russians are so mad that they set fire to the books prompting one Frenchman to get extremely upset and scream that they can't burn books and that it is just wrong. Obviously an attack on what is happening in Nazi Germany at the time, it's very poignant and just one of many powerful scenes.
The many officers and soldiers of World War I may be separated by language, culture and nationality, but there is no denying they share the same experiences. This is not a war film, but an anti-war film that celebrates humanity, a humanity that transcends national and racial borders. This is a film that tells the audience that the war to end all wars didn't solve anything, war never solves anything. With World War II on the horizon and the threat of Hitler and the Nazis, Renoir the pacifist dreads what will happen next. As Hitler screams about annexing Czechoslovakia on the radio, Renoir is tenderly speaking out against such aggression using the art of cinema to ask of his audience, "Have we learned nothing?"
Notice also the tune the prisoners play during the escape - the actual song (although we do not hear the lyrics, it is a famous song) of that song are brutal and very relevant to the pessimism of the film. The somewhat obscure title also betrays that, if we take it that the words of the protagonists at the end of the film are the key to interpreting it: the great illusion is that the war will quickly end. Renoir who took part on the great war himself was surely aware about the attitude of people to the war at the beginning of it. They all were cheerful and sure that the war would end in the first months after its beginning (Stephan Zweig gives a nice description of European psychology at the time in his The World of Yesterday). The film ridicules this attitude as well as the manners and chivalry during the war (see Rauffenstein inviting his new prisoners to dinner). But the statement of the film, that the illusion is that the war will end, transcends the WWI context and becomes, unintentionally maybe, a description of human nature in general - a nature which can take so many different forms (Russians, Germans, French, English) and yet is so much the same; a nature which has war in its very nature. The last long shot with the two escapees walking in the snow, crossing the borders, while we know that they are going back to their army to continue the fight couldn't be a more pessimistic end then.
In 1937, film acting was still almost always stiff and mannered. When looking at films of this era, one often grades them on a curve. No one expects Method acting, no one expects natural dialogue that sounds like how humans actually speak.
By the thirties, we were in our first real generation of film actors; no longer were movies burdened with hack stage actors who never learned how to modify their performances for this much more intimate medium, as in the early silent era. For nearly 30 years, Mary Pickford had been showing actors how relate emotions with simple, honest reactions. But in 1937, it was still difficult to find movies that weren't marred with one-dimensional characters and hokey acting styles.
Grand Illusion's performances breathe with unparalleled natural humanity. Every actor in the movie rings true, most of all Jean Gabin, who would be a star in any generation. Pierre Fresnay evokes an early day Trevor Howard with the subtle nobility of his Captain Boeldieu. No one ever sounds like they are acting. Everyone is just TALKING, every word they say sounds true. The acting alone in this movie is 30 years ahead of its time.
However, I'm not going to let this review get too rosy. This is a war movie without battle scenes. It mostly takes place in officers' POW camps. The German commandants, especially Erich Von Stroheim's Von Rauffenstein, go out of their way to make internment comfortable for their prisoners. Prisoners are lightly punished when they are caught attempting escape. They allow the prisoners to receive packages from home, sometimes permitting the prisoners to eat better than the German guards. Things don't even really get hard for the characters until they escape and start their long hard trek to the Swiss border.
Honestly, these camps don't seem like a terrible way to ride out a war. Why escape the camp, rejoin your regiment and get thrown back to the front lines? Could internment like this have possibly existed in the reality of a famously brutal war like World War I, a war where the treatment of POWs required the initiation of the Geneva Conventions after its conclusion?
Of course not. Grand Illusion is a rosy, unrealistic depiction of war - the truly grandest of illusions. One might even call it a Hollywood treatment of war, except that even the most whitewashed American war drama wouldn't attempt a portrayal of war with such minimal hardships.
This is not really a war movie. It's about the bringing together of men of different nations, different social strata, different points of view, and how they bond under the stress of looming death. It's about the differences and the similarities between us all. It's not a realistic depiction of war. It is still a masterpiece.
No son un gran fan del cine francés, pero tengo que reconocer que es toda una obra de referencia ... del cine. Algo hermoso, bello, ingenioso, de cuidada producción, encuadres... pero quizá le falta una historia más trascendente para ser recordada como Casablanca o la gran evasión.
The acting was excellent. It seemed effortless for them to be these characters, and I've never felt that before when watching a movie. The main character was my favorite, for sure. Handsome in a non-traditional way, and there was something about him that was so mysterious- a combination of cool, tough, fearless, but sensitive. The characters were so genuine. Great performances all around. The respect with which they all treated one another was beautiful, despite the captives/captors dynamic. Not a romance movie but the minor bit of love was surprisingly touching. Not sudden, "I can't live without you!" love like I've seen in a lot of old classics, but gradual, sweet, believable love.
It was a simple, tragic, sweet story. No ground-breaking cinematography, but definitely beautiful. Great establishing shots. The director did a great job of giving the viewer an understanding of the time, the setting, how things worked in the camp, everything. Really smooth and nice panning shots. It's not an especially fast, thrilling story, but it definitely doesn't lag or make you look at the clock either. I enjoyed it the whole way through. No wasting time with unnecessary or redundant scenes or dialog.
I loved this movie, honestly. I definitely recommend it and I'm happy to have it in my collection.
Bye love you
(Full review coming soon - requires another viewing probably)