By Indy Datta
La Grande Illusion – which tells the story of a motley band of French POWs in captivity and on the run during the First World War – was Jean Renoir’s first major commercial success. In the early years of his career (after a short-lived flirtation with the idea of becoming a ceramicist) he had partially financed the string of loss-making silent films he made by selling paintings left to him by his father, the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Although the advent of cinema sound had suited Renoir’s film-making almost from the start, with successes such as La Chienne and Boudu Sauvé des Eaux, La Grande Illusion – with its more expansive scope and scale and its cast of movie stars, including French man of the moment Jean Gabin – was a hit of a different order, and the first non English-language film to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. Its success (along with the success of his next film, an adaptation of Zola’s La Bête Humaine) gave Renoir the kind of status as a film maker that couples freedom to money. He used that capital to make La Règle du Jeu, a scandalous failure that, the legend has it, drove Renoir out of the French film industry and into the arms of Hollywood.
But seventy years later, it’s La Règle du Jeu that’s the official masterpiece, placing in the top 3 of the Sight & Sound critics’ poll of the greatest films of all time on every instance of the once-a-decade poll since 1962. Woody Allen might still cite La Grande Illusion as his favourite film, and its direct influence is visible in war films from Casablanca and Stalag 17 to The Great Escape and Inglourious Basterds, but by and large its reputation has not kept pace with that of its younger sibling.
On some level, the fact of Illusion’s very audience-friendliness may be a cause of this. Where La Règle’s deep-staged, elaborately choreographed long takes are conspicuously virtuosic, the hunt sequence by contrast so brutally unstaged and tonally confrontational as to be almost avant-garde, and while the looming spectre of the second war (imagined by critics or not) lends the film an apocalyptic edge, Illusion superficially feels, by comparison, almost cosy. The first POW camp we see is not so bad (the prisoners get to put on shows, they eat as well as their captors), and when our protagonists are moved to von Rauffenstein’s castle, their lot even superficially improves. While Renoir’s visual technique in the earlier film is extremely fluent, it is also invisible, in the fashion of the great Hollywood craftsmen he revered. And Illusion provides plenty of good meat-and-potatoes plot-driven entertainment as well – most notably the sequence covering the escape attempt from von Rauffenstein’s castle. To the critics-turned-filmmakers of the French New Wave (including François Truffaut, who called it “the least eccentric of Renoir’s French films”) Illusion represented much of what they wanted to reject about the tradition de qualité that had dominated French cinema before their advent.
This is speculative, but Renoir’s approach to class in the film may also have done little to endear it to academically-minded critics. Whereas La Règle turns the most jaundiced of eyes on the decadent haut-bourgeoisie, Illusion could be seen as finding much to admire in the old-fashioned courtliness of its officer-aristocrats. But the key thing about Illusion is that it treats every one of its characters with respect, regardless of class, nationality or ethnicity, and it does this by letting them show surprising respect for each other. Erich von Stroheim’s Major von Rauffenstein may be holding the French prisoners captive, but his regard for his fellow officer, Pierre Fresnay’s de Boldieu, is unquestionably genuine. De Boldieu may have more in common with von Rauffenstein than he does with the commoners on his own side, but he is prepared to make the most extreme sacrifices for them. Jean Gabin’s working class Maréchal may say he never could stand Jews, but he risks capture to stop his friend Rosenthal dying a lonely death when they’re both on the run in the frozen Alps. And of course, being on different sides in the war can’t stop Maréchal and Dita Parlo’s Elsa from falling in love. In La Règle, Renoir himself says “the awful thing about life is, everybody has their reasons”. In Illusion, he and we can still believe that that’s not an awful thing at all.
But it would be wrong to characterise La Grande Illusion as a work of mush-headed idealism. From the title onwards, Renoir never lets the audience escape the irony of the enormity that hangs unseen over his characters, and from which their essential decency won’t save them. From de Boldieu and von Rauffenstein’s lament that a death in battle may be the last honourable way for men like them to go, to Elsa’s sardonic recall of the fact that the battles that took her husband and brothers were some of Germany’s greatest triumphs in the war, the shadow of the second war arguably looms over Illusion as much as it does over La Règle. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to feel that in the two years between the films, some spark of optimism in Renoir about the potential for basic human civility just blew out.
I shouldn’t end without saying something about the performances. Renoir famously loved the process of making films, and most of all working with actors – everything on his sets was secondary to the work of the actors. There isn’t a less than stellar turn in La Grande Illusion (and the ensemble won a prize at the Venice Film Festival, before the film was banned by Italy’s fascist government), but Erich von Stroheim – who had been in Hollywood for so long by the time of production that he spoke almost no German – is the pick of the bunch, a synechdochical study in mortally wounded nobility that somehow manages not to tip over into camp despite the fact that he wears a comedy neck brace for most of his scenes. Now that’s acting.
The restored La Grande Illusion is out on DVD and BluRay today.