Revisiting: La Grande Illusion
The chance to see Jean Renoir’s eloquent anti-war statement on the big screen should not be missed
It’s usually described as an anti-war statement, and La Grande Illusion is certainly and eloquently that, but Jean Renoir’s masterpiece – re-released this month – is warmer and less didactic than that tag suggests. The film makes its moral point about the futility of combat by emphasising the interconnectedness of all humanity via such shared experiences as hunger, desire and friendship. It’s also a ripping yarn with a vein of charming and sometimes risqué humour.
Renoir, the second son of the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, had seen great success during the 1930s with such films as Boudu Saved from Drowning and The Crime of Mr Lange. He made La Grande Illusion, set during the First World War, as a second global conflict became a grim certainty. The film was a critical and commercial hit, and would be the first foreign language film to receive a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture; however, its prominence and forceful message led to Joseph Goebbels declaring it Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1 and ordering the destruction of prints. During the war the film was banned in France, Italy and Germany, and the original print was lost; Renoir finally reassembled it in 1950.
What’s interesting is that this political hot potato of a film features no battles, scant bloodshed and barely a casualty. It has a gentle, ambling quality (enhanced by the fluid cinematography of Claude Renoir, the director’s nephew) that renders its characters and scenarios – inconsequential or haphazard as they may appear - vividly spontaneous and real. Then there are the performances, which stand as some of the most moving and memorable in all French cinema. Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay play Maréchal and De Boeldieu, a working class Lieutenant and aristocratic Captain respectively. The pair are shot down during an air reconnaissance mission by German Captain von Rauffenstein, played by the great silent-era director Erich von Stroheim. De Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein promptly make friends, a signifier of Renoir’s belief that class and affluence bond and separate individuals far more forcefully than nationhood. ('If a French farmer found himself dining with a French financier, those two Frenchman would have nothing to say to each other,' he wrote. 'But if a French farmer meets a Chinese farmer they will find any amount to talk about.') Maréchal and De Boldieu are shifted from camp to camp, forging friendships and variably successful escape plans as they go. Maréchal even finds the potential for romance, whilst hiding out at the rural farmhouse of a war widow played by Dita Parlo (the star of Jean Vigo’s deathless L’Atalante).
Specific sequences of La Grande Illusion famously influenced Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca and John Sturges’ The Great Escape. Its irreverence, its dark wit and romanticism, and its shaggy-dog storytelling also clearly prefigure many a war film in which madness and loss are more the focus than gung-ho baddie killing, from Kubrick’s Paths of Glory through Altman’s M*A*S*H and Malick’s The Thin Red Line. But even if war films aren’t your thing, don’t miss this opportunity to experience on the big screen one of the great films on survival, human interaction and hope.
Selected release from Fri 6 April.