Thursday, February 12, 2009
Grand Illusion is Jean Renoir's stirring humanist depiction of the complicated relationships surrounding a group of French officers imprisoned in German POW camps during World War I. The film is a dramatic account of the bravery of these soldiers as they attempt, again and again, to escape from the camps, not because conditions are so bad — the Germans treat them with remarkable civility and respect — but because of their patriotism and desire for freedom and sheer self-respect. As the noble Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) says, explaining his sportsman-like desire to escape, "Golf courses are for golf, tennis courts are for tennis, prison camps are for escaping." But the film is not only a prison escape movie. In fact, Renoir doesn't devote that much screen time to the actual escape attempts, condensing most of them via liberal use of ellipses. The film is much more directly concerned with the camaraderie among the soldiers, and especially the ways in which they form bonds of respect and loyalty with one another despite gaps in class and ethnicity that, in civilian life, would almost certainly have separated them irreparably.
Boeldieu is socially distinct from his fellow officers, a part of one of the last true generations of titled nobility in European high society. As a result, he comes across as aloof and haughty, constrained by manners from expressing himself openly, rarely displaying anything like emotional reactions. He stands apart from the roughness and free spirits of the other soldiers, even if they are officers like him. While the other officers take the opportunity of the Germans' hospitality to have as much fun as they possibly can under the circumstances — even putting on a hilarious stage show in which some of the men dress up in drag, sating sexual appetites so starved that even this poor imitation of femininity is exciting — Bouldieu does not partake in the festivities, always retaining his formal, noble manner. And yet it is undeniable that Bouldieu respects and even cares for his fellow soldiers, and that he earns their own admiration through his cavalier bravery and daring. He forms an especially close bond with the roughneck lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), with whom he shares so little in common that the two men can hardly be called proper friends despite their mutual respect. The same is true of Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jew who is lightly ribbed by his compatriots for his heritage, but who is proud and happy to share with them the bounty of food he receives in parcels from back home.
None of these men — there's also a bookish intellectual (Jean Dasté) and a carousing, vulgar jokester (Julien Carette), among others — would likely associate with one another outside of military life, but in these circumstances they become fast friends. Renoir frequently emphasizes their unity with group shots in which the men are tightly clustered together, leaning on one another and singing and laughing. The camera pans across their faces, so different and yet all men fighting for the same country and placed in the same situation. In them, Renoir finds beauty and humor and emotional complexity, their different backgrounds often causing them to spar or exchange joking comments, but never overwhelming their basic humanity and respect for each other.
Renoir's humanism extends equally to the German side of the war, who are without fail depicted as completely and complexly as their French counterparts. There is no demonizing of the enemy here: the Germans treat their prisoners well, and are even remarkably indulgent of escape attempts. At one point, Maréchal is punished with solitary confinement for inciting the prisoners with news of French victories in the war, but even this is comparatively tame, as is the way the Germans finally punish the multiple escape attempts of the officers only by moving them to a new prison. At this new, supposedly inescapable mountain fortress, Maréchal, Bouldieu and Rosenthal find themselves under the command of the German nobleman Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). Rauffenstein was the ace pilot who shot down Maréchal and Bouldieu in the first place, and who greeted his enemies then by inviting them to dinner with him. Some time later, he is badly injured, sidelined as a soldier, and he takes over as commander of this prison. Rauffenstein is, in terms of class, an equivalent of Bouldieu, and the two men quickly become friends: they share the same interests, the same social circles, the same acquaintances. Bouldieu has more in common with this enemy commander than he does with any of his fellow soldiers, and he begins spending time with Rauffenstein.
The German is less tolerant than his French counterpart, tending to view the lower classes as beneath his attention, unworthy of the aristocratic status that he and Bouldieu possess. Bouldieu quietly but forcefully argues against him, not getting much traction with his insistence that all men are worthy of respect and honor, until his actions ultimately speak louder than his words: he's willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of his "common" compatriots. Throughout the film, Renoir keeps his focus on such moral and philosophical questions rather than on the particulars of the plot. His storytelling style is elliptical and lyrical, and the editing from scene to scene is often abrupt, as though each scene lasts only as long as it needs to before rapidly fading out or simply cutting directly to a very different scene.
Renoir treats time and place very loosely, carelessly eliding details about when and where things take place. In the early scenes, he cuts directly from Maréchal and Bouldieu planning to take off on a mission, to the interior of a German base where Rauffenstein is talking about shooting down a French plane. It's obvious enough what happened in between, but Renoir's extreme elisions can sometimes seem like sloppiness. It soon becomes apparent, however, that he is simply much more interested in thematic blocks than he is in narrative progression. The film's pacing is purposefully uneven, broken up into an episodic structure in which only the key scenes are shown, the rest left for the audience to fill in the blanks. Only in the film's final section does the pace slow down for an idyllic, romantic interlude at a German farm, where the escaping Maréchal is cared for and eventually comes to love a sweet, widowed German woman (Dita Parlo), whose sadness about the harsh toll of war causes her to protect Maréchal and Rosenthal rather than turn them in. These kinds of choices are at the heart of Renoir's work: to forge connections rather than sever them, to learn the languages of others, to work towards peacetime happiness and pleasure rather than perpetuating violence and aggression.