by Pauline Kael
In form, La Grande Illusion is an escape story; yet who would think of it this way? It’s like saying that Oedipus Rex is a detective story. The great work transcends the usual categories. La Grande Illusion is a perceptive study of human needs and the subtle barriers of class among a group of prisoners and their captors during World War I. The two aristocrats, the German prison commander von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) and the captured French officer de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), share a common world of memories and sentiments. Though their class is doomed by the changes which have produced the war, they must act out the rituals of noblesse oblige and serve a nationalism they do not believe in. The Frenchman sacrifices his life for men he does not really approve of — the plebian Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the Jew Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). These ironies and ambiguities give genuine depth to the theme — fraternization, and the illusions of nationality.
La Grande Illusion had an immediate, idealistic aim. Hitler was about to move into Austria and Czechoslovakia: another war was imminent. Renoir hoped to reawaken in the German people the spirit of comradeship that had developed toward the end of World War I, when he had been in a prison camp. “I made La Grande Illusion because I am a pacifist,” Renoir said in 1938, but already his hopes for the film had been destroyed. The new Nazi nationalism was more frenzied and irrational than the nationalism he had argued against. Goebbels had already banned the movie in Germany; by the summer of 1940, the Nazis were in Paris, and the prints were confiscated.
By then Renoir had fled France, and he thought that La Grande Illusion, having failed in its purpose —to guide men toward a common understanding, having failed even to reach the men he was addressing — would be as ephemeral as so many other films. But La Grande Illusion is poetry: it is not limited to a specific era or a specific problem; its larger subject is the nature of man, and the years have not diminished its greatness.
Although the message of La Grande Illusion is in its hope for international brotherhood, compassion, and peace, it is also an elegy for the death of the old European aristocracy. It’s rare for a man who aligns himself with the rising working classes to perceive the beauty and elegance of the decaying elite and the way of life that is finished no matter which countries win the war. Compare Renoir’s treatment of the career officers with, say, Eisenstein’s in Potemkin, and you have the measure of Renoir’s humanity. Eisenstein idealizes the proletariat, and cruelly caricatures the military; Renoir isn’t a sociologist or a historian who might show that there were heroes and swine in both groups — he simply isn’t concerned with swine. His officers — von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu — were at home in the international sportsmanship of the prewar world, but the skills, maneuvers, courage and honor that made military combat a high form of sportsmanship are a lost art, a fool’s game, in this mass war. The war, ironically, has outmoded the military. These officers arc commanding men who, in their terms, arc not even soldiers; the fighting itself has become a series of base humiliations. They have lost sympathy with the world; they have lost even their self-respect. All they have left is their sense of the rules of the fool’s game — and they play by them. Von Rauffenstein’s grief at his slaughter of de Boeldieu is so moving and painful because von Rauffenstein knows the stupidity and waste of it. When he cuts the sprig of geranium, the only flower in the fortress, it is for the death of nobility —and his own manhood. (Von Stroheim had used the geranium in the fortress scene of Queen Kelly — but the flower wasn’t cut off, the whole picture was.) Von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu are in a great romantic tradition: Cyrano had his plume, they draw on their white gloves, perhaps the district officer in Kenya dressed for dinner even when his only guests might be Mau-Mau. They go in style.
Marechal, the mechanic who has become an officer, has no sense of style —he is uneasy’ in the presence of urbanity and polish; but he is the common man raised to his finest qualities: he has natural gallantry. Perhaps it is not going too far to suggest that Renoir is a bit like Marechal, with his joy in life, his survival power. Renoir gives more of himself than an aristocrat would think proper. He has none of that aristocratic reserve, the attitude that what you don’t express is more important than what you express. But, unlike Marechal, Renoir is an artist: he celebrates the life that Marechal lives.
To a generation unfamiliar with the young Gabin and the young Fresnay, a generation that thinks of von Stroheim in terms of his legendary, ruined masterpieces, the performances of these three actors are fresh and exciting — three different styles of acting that illuminate each other. The miracle of Gabin’s performance in this type of good, simple-hero role is that you’re not aware of any performance. With Fresnay and von Stroheim, you are, and you should be; they represent a way of life that is dedicated to superbly controlled outer appearances. Try’ to imagine an exchange of roles between, say, Gabin and Fresnay, and you see how “right” the casting and acting are. This is true, also, for the lesser roles: a few words and we know the worlds of these characters, who speak in their own tongues — French, German, or English, and who embody their backgrounds, classes, and attitudes.
In cinema there is the artistry’ that brings the medium alive with self-conscious excitement (Eisenstein’s Potemkin, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane) and there is the artistry that makes the medium disappear (La Grande Illusion, De Sica’s Shoeshine). La Grande Illusion is a triumph of clarity and lucidity; every detail fits simply, easily, and intelligibly. There is no unnecessary camera virtuosity: the compositions seem to emerge from the material. It’s as if beauty just happens (is it necessary to state that this unobtrusive artistry is perhaps the most difficult to achieve?). The characters, the dialogue, the fortress, the farm, the landscape, all fuse into the story and the theme. The result is the greatest achievement in narrative film. It’s a little embarrassing to state this so baldly, but La Grande Illusion, like Renoir’s earlier, but very different, Partie de Campagne, is just about a perfect work (in fact, I can’t find a flaw in it). There was no reason for Renoir to tap this vein again. His next great work was the tragi-comic carnal chase, La Règle du Jeu, which accelerates in intensity until it becomes a macabre fantasy.
It is not difficult to assess Jean Renoir’s position as a film director: he is the master of the French school of naturalistic cinema. Even the best works of Feyder, Carné, Duvivier, Pagnol, don’t have the luminosity of the great Renoir films. (It is one of those ludicrous paradoxes of fame that, even in film reviews, Renoir is commonly identified as the son of the great Impressionist, as if his own light, which has filled the screen for almost four decades, were not strong enough to prevent confusion.) How can his special radiance be explained? Perhaps it’s because Renoir is thoroughly involved in his films; he reaches out toward us, he gives everything he has. And this generosity is so extraordinary that perhaps we can give it another name: passion.
The Art Film Publications, 1961
Republished in I lost it at the movies