Not rated...for having too much heart! They couldn't handle all of the emotions and decided that this movie transcended the need for a petty rating. It's like the truce at Christmas! If only that feeling could break the binds of traditional rating systems. Alas, La Grande Illusion is a glimmer of hope against the cold ratings of an evil MPAA. Either that, or this is an old French movie that wasn't under the purview of rating at the time. One or the other.
DIRECTOR: Jean Renoir
Guys, it's Criterion # 1 (on DVD) for a reason. Maybe that reason was that they could get their hands on it, but I don't think so. Sorry, it's hard to find an actual justification for those early Criterions. After all, I do love my copy of Armageddon on Criterion. Don't get me started on Laserdiscs. The readership would crash the website if I started talking about that hot button topic like Laserdiscs. But I've always loved The Grand Illusion. I always liked Renoir. I always find these topics way harder to write about because I'm really good at griping. I'm not always great at unabashedly praising something.
Renoir is such a great director, but he's also such a mixed bag. I want to say that his movies are overloaded with heart, but after rewatching The Rules of the Game last year, I noticed that he can also be cold and distant with purpose. I'm going to state that The Rules of the Game does have heart to some extent. I don't think that Renoir can completely shut it off. After all, The Lower Depths, one of the most bummer movies of the era, is also full of heart. But The Rules of the Game intentionally plays it close to the vest for a good portion of the movie to make us hate the characters. La Grande Illusion might be one of the best examples of maintaining two simultaneous tones. This is simultaneous and heartwarming movie while also being cold and calculating. I know that there are some real Rules of the Game fans and I really can't blame them for saying that Rules of the Game might be Renoir's best film, but I really really like La Grande Illusion. Being the bummer turd that I am, I think that The Lower Depths might be my favorite of his movies. But that's under the umbrella of being one of the many movies that I claim to love but have only seen once. The tone of La Grande Illusion definitely feels like a war film. Jean Renoir was a famous pacifist, so the fact that he is making a war movie without any war in it is kind of cool. It never really misses a beat in terms of not really showing violence. There's only one scene of violence in the movie, captured by a single gunshot. That single gunshot, because of the absolute lack of violence in an apparent war movie, has such a chord of discomfort. I never really thought about the lack of violence in it and it works so well. I think my favorite kind of war film is the escape film and I'd love to teach an entire unit just on the escape film. But the mood that the movie presents is really character driven. We often don't see gunfire in these movies except once the escape happens. I'm thinking of that scene in The Great Escape where McQueen is testing the fences. These gunshots aren't the same as watching something like Where Eagles Dare or The Dirty Dozen. When a gunshot is heard in an escape film, the status quo has changed. The system is being torn apart. There's an element of failure on the part of the camp. I know that technically, the camp is establishing the center of power when it fires a gun. But it also means that the inmates aren't as afraid as they thought they were.
There's an interesting moment in The Grand Illusion that really typifies what I'm talking about. There's this moment where the warden (I can't spell the word I'm trying to spell and autocorrect is not helping in the least) sits down with the officer in charge. He does not interrogate or search his possessions. Rather, he asks him quite plainly to tell him if he has any tools of escape in the room. There is this odd trust that is based on a mix of fear and respect. There is never really a threat from Erich von Stroheim (whom I adore in this film), but rather an acknowledgement of the power dynamics that he holds over the officers in his care. SPOILER: It would later be Stroheim that ends up killing Boeldieu despite this relationship. It was his only shot and it was on a man who simply carried a flute near the wall. It's such a powerful moment. I can't really verbalize this scene as much as I would like to mainly because there's a complex feeling going on there. I'm sure that the Germans probably have a perfect word explaining how Boeldieu and Rauffenstein feel about each other. It's just such a slap in the face. I don't want to be interpreting with garbage interpretations here because that would be a disservice to this movie, but I can't help but think that Boeldieu puts on the glove knowing that he is going to be emotionally slapping Rauffenstein in the face. There's this odd dynamic between the two characters. One of the major concepts that I love that this movie explores is the respect between soldiers. Remember, La Grande Illusion is a WWI movie, not a WWII movie. The Germans aren't Nazis in this one. That wouldn't happen until the sequel. But Rauffenstein is shooting his friend. I don't know if Boeldieu ever feels the same friendship that Rauffenstein feels, but there definitely feels like there is respect there. But Boeldieu needs Rauffenstein to shoot him. It is their relationship. It is this weird automation to their existences that has to happen. I don't know. I could be talking about of my rear end.
The structure of the movie is absolutely bizarre. I showed this movie to my class over the period of three days. The beginning of the movie establishes the tone without being hamfisted. My students were confused about how the movie began because Renoir forgoes the standard introduction of setting. Rather, the movie starts with Maréchal already in prison. I have to think that Renoir is making an active choice to avoid showing what the world is like outside of captivity. We never actually get to see the character enjoying any degree of freedom until BIG SPOILER the last shot of the movie. But the first act is entirely devoted to the role of the imprisoned soldier. It is the job of the soldier to get to safety, regardless of what luxuries he may be receiving in captivity. Renoir really paints the life of the POW as one of advantage over that of the battlefield. Yet, no one in these camps questions the concept that it is his sole duty to escape. The second act is the actual plan to escape from the perfect prison. This is the Rauffenstein stuff that I was talking about in the last paragraph. It's funny that Maréchal is even in this part of the movie because he is the protagonist, but the plan is far from his. He simply plays a part in its execution and experiences the fruits of his labor. I really like each act better than the last, mainly because of the charm of ACT III. Act III is he and Rosenthal on the run. I love how tense this scene is despite that there never really is a formal chase in the story. We understand that they are on the run from the Germans, but the tension is both internal and external. The external conflict comes with the sheer terror of getting caught in the German countryside. The internal conflict is how Maréchal and Rosenthal get along with Rosenthal's impediment. It really is great and it is only balmed by the introduction of Elsa. I love the Elsa story. Elsa and her daughter is what Renoir portrays best. I was talking about this being a movie with heart and that last act with the family is absolutely heartbreaking. It's odd that in the final act of a film, Renoir introduces a story about belonging and how war potentially rips people apart. Simultaneously, he is also presenting how war is composed not of armies, but of soldiers who happened to be people. There isn't much time for trust and distrust in this movie. Elsa trusts the gentlemen implicitly. You'd think that Renoir would be tempted to show Elsa's torn loyalties based on the death of her husband, but Renoir has her as the best of humanity. She loves because she sees the value of life. They are not evil men and she will not contribute to their deaths. I love that so much. The two men become like family for her and her daughter and I needed at the end of my prison escape movie. This is why I watch Renoir. This stuff.
I'm going to see this one again and again. I always show it for this unit in French cinema, so I'm going to revisit it. It isn't my favorite escape movie, but I'm always really excited to watch it. Again, it's Criterion's number one. That probably means it is their favorite movie.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.