Apologies for the long gap in the 1937 countdown. I spent the Thanksgiving weekend in Big Bear playing in the snow, gorging on turkey, and curling up in front of roaring fires with a book. Despite all that fun, there was unexpectedly no internet connection. I didn’t get back until last night, so my overview of 1937 can continue. I hope everyone here in the U.S. had a great Thanksgiving and everyone else just had an all around great day. Now for the third best movie of 1937:
(aka La Grande Illusion)
Director, Jean Renoir; Screenplay, Charles Spaak & Jean Renoir; Producers, Albert Pinkovitch and Frank Rollmer; Cinematography, Christian Matras; Original Music, Joseph Kosma; Editor, Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir; Production Design Eugene Lourié; Costume Design, René Decrais
Cast: Jean Gabin (Lt. Maréchal), Pierre Fresnay (Capt. De Boeldieu), Marcel Dalio (Lt. Rosenthal), Erich von Stroheim (Capt. von Rauffenstein), Dita Parlo (Elsa)
I always cringe when I hear Jean Renoir’s classic Grand Illusion described as an anti-war film. Yes, an anti-war message is part of it, but identifying it as such misses the larger point. Renoir doesn’t necessarily see war as the problem; war is merely a symptom – albeit a horrendous symptom – of a more basic problem: the inability of people to identify with and embrace people who are different from them. It sounds so basic and, frankly, trite when it’s put in such a basic and crude way, but Renoir was a master so he handles the message more artfully. That’s why we go see the movies of directors like Renoir rather than read stuff like this.
Grand Illusion is an impassioned plea for empathy – brotherhood if you will excuse the corny, though appropriate phrase – across social, religious, national, and class boundaries as the world stumbled almost inevitably toward war in 1937. Renoir observed that the lessons Europeans should have learned after the Great War went ignored and that failure would lead to disaster. It would not be long until his apprehension would prove justified.
To make his point, Renoir set the events in and among French, English, and Russian prisoners of war in Germany sometime during the First World War. Captured together are Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay). The two officers join other French prisoners of war and, in the grand tradition of military POWs, hatch one escape plot after another. The seemingly obvious divisions among prisoners in the camps melt away. Aristocratic Boeldieu is welcome along with the Jewish Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and the working class Maréchal. There is nothing remarkable in suggesting that people will find commonality among themselves when in a life-threatening situation. In this case, nationality is what bonds the men together.
But this is where Renoir elevates the material beyond a simple but effective message promoting cooperation and understanding. A harmony of nationality isn’t what Renoir wants us to take away; national allegiances, after all, lead to the most horrific war to that date. There are more social classifications with which people can identify. Later, when many of the men are transferred to another camp, Boeldieu is immediately spotted by the commander of the camp Capt. von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). Rauffenstein sees a fellow aristocrat and, despite the fact that their respective nations are at war, tries to form a bond with the French prisoner. Rauffenstein embraces Boeldieu not because he’s such a great guy but because he is part of the same dying European aristocracy. He believes they should have a bond stronger than Boeldieu has with his fellow countrymen because he and the German officer are part of a long and noble tradition that transcends national lines, forced to fight one another not due to any real animosity but because politicians in their countries have bungled matters. The French officer, however, humors his German counterpart, looking for his opportunity to use their relationship to escape.
Boeldieu and Rauffenstein ponder their class bond
The relationship between Boeldieu and Rauffenstein could have signified the illusory lines that nationalism draws between people, but Renoir is just as put off by class divisions. Class, like nation, artificially and arbitrarily distinguishes some at the expense of others. It’s just another destructive hierarchy. Also, Renoir identifies many competing identities and wonders when one trumps another. For Rauffenstein class overshadows all else, but Boeldieu chooses nationality. What makes one choice more correct than the other? And if they are equally valid choices, what does that say about our almost blind allegiance to any one group? We choose our allegiances not based on any natural or inevitable system, but based on what we perceive works best for us. We make these irrational choices because they are easy; building bridges between and among differing groups is difficult, too difficult for most of us. It’s easier to stake our claim (and, the implication is, our worth) to a national, class, racial, religious, sexual, philosophical, and/or political group.
Renoir isn’t cynical about the chances for trans-national understanding and cooperation. In the heartfelt third act, Maréchal and Rosenthal escape into the cold German winter. Rosenthal is injured during the escape, making the odds of reaching Switzerland marginal. The French fugitives are taken in by a German widow Elsa (Dita Parlo) who lost her husband and brothers in the war, now working her isolated farm by herself. Movie conventions tell us that a woman whose husband and brothers were killed in the war must initially, at least, hate or mistrust two enemy soldiers she finds on her property. But Elsa is tired. She’s tired of grieving and hating and she knows that these French officers didn’t make the war, any more than the men in her family did. Maréchal and Rosenthal are victims as much as they were. With quiet determination, Elsa nurses them back to health and, despite the language barrier, falls in love with Maréchal. Renoir suggests that if we spend a little time with people we don’t understand, we will realize they aren’t quite so scary.
It’s a lesson Germany was ignoring in 1937 as the Nazi Party continued to consolidate power based on the exploitation of national, racial, and religious distinctions. And it’s a lesson the world continues to ignore, whether it is the increasing intolerance of Muslims and illegal immigrants in the United States, the fanaticism of some Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu groups in Africa and Asia, the anti-gay witch hunts in places like Uganda and Jamaica, or the progressively tense standoff between the two Koreas. Relations between peoples and nations are too often dictated by the ignorant and hysterical. Renoir saw the future could only be saved by encouraging personal relationships across social boundaries. These relationships would (and will) undercut the hysteria of sheltered nincompoops who visit their angst on the rest of us. Unfortunately these people still drive the political and diplomatic narrative in this country (Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Senator-elect Rand Paul – it’s depressing how long this list could be).
Grand Illusion, then, is sadly still relevant. As someone who has studied history for most of my adult life, I have to admit that it will always be relevant. People never learn the lessons of the past and make the same goofy mistakes time after time. Maybe we can get more people to watch this movie and others like it and get them to embrace its message. We need more people on the side of sanity.