Den Store Illusion
This week my DVD player in my laptop finally called it the day after several weeks of being quarrelsome. That is a total bummer. I really like to watch the movies with my headset on and really get immersed. Alas, it is back to the big ol’ television, the sofa and the ever present risk of falling asleep.
Not so with this movie on though. “La Grande Illusion” is one of the better films of the thirties and one I have no problem staying awake for. This is the second time I see it and whereas I was totally excited the first time I am a bit less blown away this time round. And no blaming the television. I have some problems pointing my finger at what was less good this time, it is still a very good film, but maybe I have just started noticing some flaws. Or what I would consider flaws.
On the surface “La Grande Illusion” is a war/prison camp film. A theme used relentlessly in cinema since. The film has hardly opened before we find our leads in captivity and from then on it is all about escape. Curiously, considering the enthusiasm for escaping, the prison camps are not really that bad. These are for officers and due to parcels sent from home the French prisoners even eat better than their guards and spend their time gardening or setting up a cabaret show. Certainly not KZ fare. Yet escape plans flourish so our prisoners end up in a max security prison which is actually a medieval castle on a mountain and the story climax with a spectacular escape.
See, that does not sound that interesting, does it? In fact it seems a bit cliché or even boring.
Well, it is actually quite entertaining, but that is because this is not really the story at all. The actual story is about people and social class. People across social classes and nationalities who happen to be caught up in the great disaster called WWI.
We have Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a lieutenant of working class origin, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish lieutenant of wealthy background and de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocratic captain. Three people who outside the war and probably even outside the prison camps would have had nothing to do with each other. Each of them has a “natural” dislike and certainly distrust for each other, but in this environment of being imprisoned those class terms break down. Not so that they disappear, oh no, they never forget who they are, but they get behind the surface of each other and see that what is beneath is not a stereotype but a real human being with qualities that may be inherent to their background, but is for the good, not to be scoffed at. Maréchal is loyal, persistent. Rosenthal is resourceful and generous. And Boeldieu turn the aristocratic honor into a commitment to group when he makes the ultimate sacrifice.
On a technical level the film starts out with the characters playing their types, but as the film progresses the types get blurred and they are, not reduced, but elevated into men. The war setting is simply the catharsis the characters have to go through to realize their true potential. Jean Gabin is the naturalistic actor representing the common class, whereas Pierre Fresnay is quite the opposite. He is affected and studied and looks and speaks as if he was on a stage. Seeing them together in the same scenes their acting style clashes so they seem almost badly casted, but it serves well to highlight their fundamental class differences.
On the German side we find a number of wooden henchmen. Exact, disciplined soldiers who are just that. At least to all appearances. And then we have von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). He is an aristocratic officer who meets Maréchal and Boeldieu twice. First when they are taken captive and secondly he is the commander of the prison fortress. Von Rauffenstein and Boeldieu belong to the same class and live by the same code. In that sense their relationship goes beyond borders so that it almost seems as if Rauffenstein and Boeldieu are together against the mob rather than at war with each other. This is the sentiment at their first meeting, but at their second meeting it is different. While Boeldieu has evolved out of his type Rauffenstein has not. Rauffenstein with his corset (due to a war injury), stiff manners and bleak medieval fortress is a dinosaur on the verge of extinction. He does not understand what has happened to Boeldieu and so he represents the past as Boeldieu is, or at least give way to, the future. The future in this case is the worker and the Jew who get a shot at building a future across borders, social as well as national borders.
It was a scoop that Renoir got Stroheim to play von Rauffenstein. I have said it before; he is a horrible director but an excellent actor. Stroheim happened to be in Paris at the time and agreed to play the part and as the story went even helped develop the character. Stroheim IS the Germanic aristocrat to the bone. Only problem was that his German was actually miserable. Whenever he speaks German he does so with a horrible American accent, which he tries to drown out by mumbling. Not good. Also from time to time he switches to English, which I did not entirely understand. His character speaks perfect French, so I did not really see the need. One possibility might be as a reference to their social class. Being able to speak English with Boeldieu separated them from the rabble.
Actually the language part was an asset to this film. French speak French, Germans speak German and English speak English and all do so (with the exception of von Stroheim) fluently and with a natural ease so we believe they are who they are. This is nowhere more so than in the farm house with Elsa (Dita Parlo) and her totally adorable daughter Lotte. Language is used as a barrier, but one that can and should be surmounted. Maréchal understands more from Elsa than he ever learned from the German guards. That is also significant.
Finally a few words about the castle. The castle scenes were filmed at Haut Königsbourg in Alsace, France. It was a contested area between France and Germany for centuries and during WWI actually belonged to Germany. The castle itself is medieval and it is totally awesome. I have been there and I can testify that if you ever knew a quintessential medieval mountain fortress this is it. In fact Alsace is one of the nicest places I know and the wine and food is just excellent… hmmm…I digress… Anyway this is a really cool set.
“La Grande Illusion” may not be one of the greatest war/prison camp movies ever, but it is one on the great humanistic films of all times. I would recommend it any day and it is a good entry into the works of Renoir.