Friday, May 25, 2012

Jean Renoir | La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion)

a world of the dead
by Douglas Messerli
Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak (screenplay),  Jean Renoir (director) La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion) / 1937, USA 1938

Seeing Grand Illusion the other day upon the large screen of Los Angeles' Laemmle's Royal Theatre, I perceived this film in a new way than I had watched it as a young student years before.  In the interim, I had attempted to view an old VCR tape, but the quality was so washed out that the subtitles were impossible to read and it was painful even to the eyes. This 1999 restoration was, in every way, a revelation.

     If I had originally perceived this film as an almost comical anti-war statement from the great film director, this time around, provoked by comments from my companion, Howard, I realized that despite the film's international admiration, it is a work that is not entirely self-contained, that particularly for the young without a strong sense of history, its meaning might be blurred. Despite what we generally know about the savagery of the first modern war of the 20th century, Renoir's work depicts the wartime situations from the strange vantage point of various German prisons for officers in which, although we are shown some deprivations and the utter boredom of prison life, for the most part the officers from various countries—although Renoir focuses primarily on the French—are treated relatively humanely, particularly when they are transferred to Wintersborn prison under the command of Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (the imperious Erich Von Stroheim). Indeed, in some respects, given the hefty food packets received from home by Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), their gastronomical condition is far better than the Germans, who survive primarily on cabbage. Yes, they are all prisoners, forced at times to endure painful punishments, but they are given liberties not even conceived of in Billy Wilder's World War II encampment of Stalag 17, which, along with numerous other films, owes much to Renoir's 1937 work. Although there are certainly outbreaks of anger and even violence between the various prisoners and their captors, Renoir's work has none of the front-line futility of a film like All Quiet on the Western Front of seven years before.

    Even the film's final escape into German territory, where the two survivors, Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Rosenthal are forced to cohabit a small cottage with a widowed German farm woman (Dita Parlo) and her daughter, is presented as almost idyllic, and the two men's final escape into Switzerland is greeted with respect and appreciation by the German soldiers attempting to track them down.

    In short, one might ask, what is this film, so obviously cinemagraphically well-conceived, really about? War, at least from Renoir's perspective, is certainly not hell and, at times is even lauded, particularly by the aristocratic career officers, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and von Rauffenstein. Even if we take Renoir's own statement that his film is "a story about human relationships" that demonstrates that the commonality of mankind is far more important than political divisions, Grand Illusion seems, at first sight, a timid statement of pacificism.

    The film's seeming relativism, moreover, seems even more strange given the movie's date, 1937. Although World War II, if one ignores the Japanese-Chinese War already raging in 1937, is generally dated as beginning in 1939, there was no question at the time of the work's filming that Europe was moving in the direction of another violent encounter between countries. Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany four years earlier, the Italian Fascist party under Benito Mussolini had seized power nearly a decade before. France had allowed Italy to conquer Ethiopia and in 1935 the Territory of the Saar Basin was reunited with Germany, repudiating the Treaty of Versailles. In return for Germany's support of their Ethiopian invasion, Italy dropped their objection to Germany's desire to absorb Austria. By 1937, almost anyone except perhaps for British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, would have recognized that the whole continent was again about to explode into war.

    Renoir's gentlemanly depiction of the previous war's prison camps, accordingly, seems almost cowardly in retrospect. Yet, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebells named Grand Illusion "Cinematic Public Enemy No. I," ordering all prints to be confiscated. The French authorities banned the film in 1940 for "as long as the war should last." When the German Army marched into France that same year, the Nazis seized every print and negative of the film for its ideological criticisms of Germany. What are we today missing in that picture?

     In part, it is simply Renoir's great sense of irony that has been lost. For years now I have maintained that irony has disappeared in the young, to be replaced instead with satire or camp exaggeration. A long tale told through vignettes that subtly play out a conflicted statement is perhaps hard to comprehend in a time of pastiche.

    Let me attempt to explain Renoir's masterwork by suggesting that the world it portrays was recognized by most intelligent viewers of the time as a world that had long before been destroyed, that the characters of Grand Illusion existed, at the time of the film's making, in a world of the dead. Accordingly all their values, whether fascistic or humane, were "grand illusions," visions of a world that would be destroyed by the war in which they were engaged. By moving us away from the front lines, removing us from the playing fields, so to speak—and Renoir's work is very much one about the relationship of soldiers and children at play (consider Captain de Boeldieu's statement: "Out there, children play soldier...In here, soldiers play like children.")—we can more vividly see the delusions of all concerned.

     The most obvious of those delusions is the absurdity of class, the belief, encapsulated in both Captain de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, that in their aristocratic commitment to their military world, that they stood somehow apart and superior to the political divisions which they were ordered to impose. Having just finished reading Joseph Roth's wonderful fiction, Radetsky March, a few weeks before seeing Grand Illusion, I am struck by the parallel conclusions of Roth's and Renoir's visions. If nothing else, World War I completely shattered the smug contentions of moral superiority embedded in militaristic nations such as Germany, Austria, and even France. As grand as these gentleman officers might have perceived their world, it was they who brought war into existence and it was they, as a class, who were most obliterated by their involvement. The only difference between de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, is that the former comprehends that he represents a world of the past to be replaced by the working class officers like Maréchal and outsiders such as the Jewish Rosenthal, while the survivor, Rauffenstein, lives on as a kind of mad Frankenstein, his body made up of metal and wood, much of his blood and bones having been destroyed in battle after battle. But even von Rauffenstein knows what lies ahead: "Believe me, I don't know who is going to win this war, but whoever it is it will be the end of the Rauffensteins and the Boeldieus."

     Sacrificing his life to what he perceives is a new future, de Boeldieu finds a more graceful "way out," playing the clown as he runs up and down the castle staircases, flute in hand, cigarette in his mouth, to serve as decoy for his escaping soldiers. Although he is described as a "regular guy" by Rosenthal (whose family is nouveau riche), Maréchal comprehends throughout that the Captain is a man apart, a remnant of a world that has been an illusion all along, a world shared by von Rauffenstein of the belle epoque, represented in the film by the Paris restaurant Maxims, Frou-Frou, and woman they both loved.

     Yet, Renoir does not stop here in revealing his characters' personal illusions or delusions. War has already made them comprehend numerous realities that they had previously not conceived. For most of them, their wives back in France have taken up with other men, and their own sexualities, once so completely defined, have come into some question. One of the most touching moments in the film is the arrival of theater costumes, women's dresses, by which the men, who will soon don them for the joy of entertainment, are amazed given their short length and their silky textures, changes in styles since they have left home. As one young man puts on a dress and wig, the others stare, jaws locked in wonderment: for them he is clearly the reincarnation of womanhood, the stunning object of their desires. Renoir goes no further in this revelation of gender transformation, but we, as perceptive theater-goers, comprehend its significance.

     If class differences seem to have truly been obliterated, racial, religious and social differences are still very much alive, as, fed up with each other, the escapees, Maréchal and Rosenthal, suddenly turn on one another, hurling epithets that no longer have meaning. They reunite, but the pain of those abuses never quite heals.

    Renoir's gentle German farm woman, Elsa, is only too pleased to invite the two invaders into her home; after all, her own husband and brothers have been already killed in the war, in the horrible battlegrounds—Verdun, Liège, Charleroi, and Tannenberg from which Renior has kept his audience—and she is lonely.

    Although Maréchal may be the better lover, bedding Elsa soon after their arrival, Rosenthal is the better father, a man who talks with and even educates her young daughter, going so far as to create a Christmas crèche for the child, an act that goes against his faith. Both delude themselves in their short stay in paradise, that they might return for Elsa and the child, bringing her and Lotte of "blaue augen"—the dominant symbol of Hitler's pure German—back to France after the war. As Maréchal expresses his hope that this war will be end of all wars, Rosenthal argues that such thinking is another "illusion."

    Although they both escape into Switzerland, the last few images are of them attempting to move forward as their feet become entrenched in the deep snow. And we recognize, as Renoir certainly did in 1937, that in the world to which they return, if they make it, they once more will be conceived of as a "rough" mechanic and a "rotten" Jew; certainly Rosenthal might not have survived what came after. In an early version of the script, Rosenthal and Maréchal, near film's end, agree to meet in a restaurant at the end of the war, with the final scene, celebrating the armistice, showing two empty chairs at a table.

     In short, what may have appeared as a gentlemanly world based on codes of honor, valor, and trust, are just as destructive, so Renoir suggests, as the bombs and gas in the trenches at battle's front, offering no more hope for the future than a bullet to the heart.

Los Angeles, May 24, 2012

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