Arguably Jean Renoir’s most notable, La Grande Illusion is an unusual commodity. Borne previously to, but easily mistakable as a product of the second World War, Renoir’s tale of determination and spirit is as relevant 70 years on from its initial release as it was in its day.
The story of a pair of military men from opposite sides of the chain of command, La Grande Illusion traces the imprisonment of the men, and tracks their attempts to escape confinement. Following numerous escape attempts the men find themselves incarcerated at Wintersborn, a mountain fortress prison theoretically inescapable from. The film itself is actually partly-inspired by real events witnessed by Jean Renoir. In the years following his role in the First World War Renoir discovered the intriguing coincidence that he and a friend (and fellow filmmaker) Carl Koch had actually stood on opposite sides of an immediate battle in the war. The discovery formed the basis for La Grande Illusion’s most powerful strand, in the form of the exploration of the relationship between Captain de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein.
Bona-fide icon of the “Golden Age Of French cinema” Jean Gabin, portrays Lieutenant Maréchal, the lesser standing (military rank-wise) of the pair, with Pierre Fresnay as Captain de Boeldieu, the aristocratic nobleman who embodies the spirit of The Great War, of a generation of the upper classes who deemed war to be little more than excitement or sport. Notable Austrian filmmaker Erich von Stroheim is von Rauffenstein, the German equivalent to Fresnay’s Maréchal. Arguably the true star of La Grande Illusion, von Stroheim commands the screen from in front of the camera in as assured a manner as he did from behind. The reintroduction to his character, some years after his initial appearance is a work of measured genius, as Renoir’s camera scouts out his room before revealing the characters tragically disfigured appearance. A man physically broken by war, yet as dignified as in his earliest sequence, von Rauffenstein is one of the foremost creations of the 1930’s cinema.
The French incarceration genre is a favourite of Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, and has been covered heavily in all of its various guises. There is something unique about La Grande Illusion though. Through its use of humour, and its temporal protection of the horrors that waited in the Second World War Renoir manages a film that, for its first act at least, borders on the jolly. A wonderfully dark strain of comedy, in which the film leaps from humour to tragedy in nary an eye blink. Filling his cast with music hall favourites and post staged theater “film stars” Renoir provoked a diverse reaction through the onscreen action. A likeable band of rascals and ruffians form the core group of characters, bringing with them an emotional bond that is soon shattered by the sudden disappearance of many of them, and with it, Renoir pulls the rug from beneath the feet of the attached viewer.
It’s somewhat appropriate that Renoir resorts to using the theatre at the centre of the films major prevocational act, given the contempt and disdain that many of the early French filmmakers paid towards the stage, or rather, the lazy manner in which the cinema had been abused by those from the stage. A beautifully shot performance, achieved utilising some incredibly active camerawork (especially for mid-1930’s French cinema). It sounds like the most overused of clichés, but Renoir really gets inside the performance, removing it from the staged theatre fad of the early sound period.
The edit of the film flows in an almost organic fashion. Following his imprisonment, thanks to his instigated celebrations (a performance of La Marseillaise which just a few years later would be later referenced in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca), Maréchalis is revealed to be serving a stint in solitary confinement. No direct reference is made to the length of time served, with it left to little more than an amount of facial hair acquired coupled with the madness in Gabin’s eyes to poertray the temporal passing. The usual likes of a variation in editing technique are ignored, as our any mention of time or obvious props like clocks or calendars. For 1937, and a post-depression cinema still in the slump bestowed upon it by the worldwide financial landscape (sound familiar) it’s ambitious stuff. The viewers ability to logically read a scenario is never downplayed, in fact, it becomes as much a part of the scenario as anything else.
Occupying the relatively unique position of being a Germany vs. The World pre-WW2 war film lends La Grande Illusion the almost unique honour of its particular perspective. While there have been a number of films that have been somewhat sympathetic to the Axis (most recently in the shape of Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall), Renoir’s film portrays an almost innocent attitude towards war, somewhat reflective of the naive attitude that many approached the First World War with. Erich von Stroheim’s Captain von Rauffenstein is as noble a character as they come, holding his French contemporary with the utmost respect. Indeed, the final showdown between the pair, in which von Rauffenstein is forced to use extreme force to quell a situation is as wretched a tragedy as anything presented by Shakespeare or Aeschylus. Sentimentality is largely avoided, as per the grande illusion of war itself, with only the plight of a potted plant, the only living entity on the Dracula’s castle of Wintersborn, the focus of overt emotional focus.