Grand Illusion Essay


The European community was founded nearly forty years ago, with the stated object of promoting the “ever-closer” union of its members. It is a remarkable accomplishment, albeit not quite so remarkable as its advocates suggest. There are few who oppose its objectives in principle, and the practical benefits it affords its members, such as unrestricted trade, are obvious. That, after all, is why nearly everyone wants to join it. It is now engaging in negotiations among its member-states to construct a single European currency and mechanisms for common decision-taking and collective action, while simultaneously holding out to the countries of former Communist Europe the promise of membership in years to come.

The likelihood that the European Union can fulfill its own promises of ever-closer union, while remaining open to new members on the same terms, is slim indeed. In the first place, the unique historical circumstances of the years between 1945 and 1989 cannot be reproduced. Indeed, the disruptive effect of the events of 1989 has been at least as great in the West as in the East. The essence of the Franco-German condominium around which postwar Western Europe was built lay in a mutually convenient arrangement: the Germans would have the economic means and the French would retain the political initiative. In the early postwar years, of course, the Germans had not yet acquired their present wealth and French predominance was real. But from the mid-Fifties this was no longer true; thereafter France’s hegemony in West European affairs rested upon a nuclear weapon that the country could not use, an army that it could not deploy within the continent itself, and an international political standing derived largely from the self-interested magnanimity of the three victorious Powers at the end of the war.

This curious interlude is now at an end. One economic fact may illustrate the point. In 1990 a chart of French economic influence shows it to be limited to the “Europe of Nine”—that is to say, the original six (Germany, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries)—plus Britain, Eire, and Denmark. With these countries, France was a major importer and exporter of goods and services. But Germany, in contrast, already encompassed within its range of economic influence not only the present “Europe of Fifteen” but also most of the rest of the continent to the south and east. The significance of this is clear. France has become a regional power, confined to Europe’s western edge. Germany, even before unification, was once again the great power of Europe.

The impact of 1989 has also posed new difficulties for the Germans. For just as weakness and declining international power arouse difficult memories for France, so in Germany does an apparent excess of power. German politicians from Adenauer to Helmut Kohl have made a point of playing down German strength, deferring to French political initiatives and emphasizing their own wish for nothing more than a stable Germany in a prosperous Europe; they have thus fallen victim to their own…

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Grand Illusion is the masterpiece that earned Jean Renoir enormous acclaim in the United States, exciting the admiration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and running for 26 weeks in New York after its opening in September 1938. Banned in Italy by Mussolini, and in Germany by Goebbels (naturally), it vanished during the war, only to be recovered in 1946 in a truncated state, finally reconstructed by Renoir during the late 1950s.

Despite these tribulations, Grand Illusion has retained the look, sound, and feel of a classic. Made just three years before World War II, it gazes back to a different era, and to a war, in the words of the director, “based on fair play, a war without atom bombs or torture.” Hitler had not appeared. “Nor,” says Renoir, “had the Nazis, who almost succeeded in making people forget that the Germans are also human beings.”

Using the POW camp as a microcosm, Renoir studies the interplay of a motley group of French officers, forced to live together under the eyes of their German captors. Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is the no-nonsense Breton, ill-educated but infinitely dependable. Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) comes from the aristocracy, and carries his white gloves and monocled disdain from one camp to another. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) is of wealthy Jewish ancestry and dispels the prejudice of the men around him through generosity of mind and means. And crossing their path most memorably is the archetypal Teutonic officer, Captain von Rauffenstein, played by Hollywood’s “Man You Love to Hate,” Erich von Stroheim.

During World War I, while the future director was flying reconnaissance missions, a certain Major Pinsard saved Renoir’s life through some fearless attacks on enemy fighters. Pinsard was shot down seven times, and on every occasion contrived to land safely. Years later, while filming Toni in southern France, Renoir was irritated by the incessant din of planes using a nearby aerodrome. The instigator of the noise turned out to be none other than Pinsard. From his reminiscences, Renoir devised the story of Grand Illusion.

Grand Illusion escapes the confines of the war movie genre. Scarcely a gun is fired in anger. The trenches are nowhere in sight. Yet through some alchemy, Renoir imbues the film with his passionate belief in man’s humanity to man. In no other work, indeed, does Renoir give such obvious validity to his famous credo about the world being divided socially in horizontal, not vertical, terms. “If a French farmer found himself dining with a French financier,” he wrote, “those two Frenchman would have nothing to say to each other. But if a French farmer meets a Chinese farmer they will find any amount to talk about.” The accident of war brings out the fundamentally decent nature of people who in peacetime would be unbending strangers to one another. Von Rauffenstein invites the French officers he has just shot down to join him for lunch. Rosenthal, who suffers some initial needling about his Jewishness, lays out the contents of his sumptuous food parcel for the benefit of those who regard him so condescendingly. Elsa, the German widow, gives food and shelter to the fugitives whose countrymen have killed her husband at Verdun.

In Grand Illusion, everyone learns to give and take, without betraying his essential personality, without denying differences of language and education. The prisoners sustain themselves with small delusions: digging a tunnel by night; dressing up in drag to remind themselves of the womanhood that has no place in prison life; celebrating the smallest and most fleeting of victories as news filters in from the front; or, most pathetic of all, von Rauffenstein’s careful tending of a geranium in his fortress bedroom.

Grand Illusionis the ideal film to watch on DVD because Renoir’s technique is so self-effacing that in a theater its subtle nuances are likely to pass by the viewer. The camera lingers and shifts with these men in their cramped surroundings. Renoir allows the details to emerge by not surrendering to the snap-crackle-pop style of editing associated with war films. As he himself has written, during the meal in the first POW camp, “the camera moves over the details of the scene without ceasing to link up the whole until the sequence is ended.” This reinforces the idea of people forming a cohesive group, rather than performing life’s petty rituals in isolation. For such visual fluency, Renoir praised his nephew, Claude (the camera operator), for being “as supple as an eel.”

The superb acting in Grand Illusion stems from several styles and traditions. Gabin as Maréchal combines—as Yves Montand and Gerard Depardieu have done since—a rasping proletarian aggression with a surprising restraint and delicacy of emotion. Fresnay brings to the movie the polish and suave timing he had acquired from his work with the Comédie Française. Julien Carette, as the cheerful, vulgar actor, upstages everyone whenever he’s in sight. And towering over the film with the impassioned arrogance of some mighty statue is von Stroheim as the commandant.

French critic André Bazin wrote of Renoir that “he has inherited from the literary and pictorial sensibility of his father’s era a profound, sensual and moving sense of reality.” A film like Grand Illusion illustrates this to perfection.

Peter Cowie is the editor of the annual International Film Guide and the author of several books on cinema, including studies of Welles, Bergman, and Coppola. He is International Publishing Director of Variety.

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