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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Grand Illusion

Director: Jean Renoir
Country: France
Year: 1937

“To the question, ‘Is the cinema an art?’ my answer is, ‘what does it matter?’ You can make films or you can cultivate a garden. Both have as much claim to being called an art as a poem by Verlaine or a painting by Delacroix… Art is ‘making’.”

“The saving grace of the cinema is that with patience and a little love we may arrive at that wonderfully complex creature which is called man.”

“A director only makes one film in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again.”

“I believe that perfection handicaps cinema.”

(all quotes above: Jean Renoir)

Background

Is there a more French-sounding name than Jean Renoir? Every time I say it aloud, I think of that Steve Martin routine, where he tries to speak French:

“du suis de du soir-ACK! AUUGHGH!”

“My God! Somebody help him! He spoke French!”

Anybody else remember that? No? Just me?

(crickets)

Jean Renoir was born in 1894, in the Montmartre district of Paris. His father was the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

When WWII began, Jean was in the French cavalry. A bullet wound in his leg necessitated a lengthy recovery, which he spent – man after my own heart – watching lots of movies. He then embarked upon a career in… ceramics? Obviously, that didn’t pan out, and he eventually turned his artistic energies to making films. From 1924-1930, he directed nine silent films, but all of them were commercial flops. To support himself, he was forced to sell paintings inherited from his father.

In 1931, Renoir directed his first sound films, On purge bébé and La Chienne (The Bitch). The 1930’s were by far his most successful period, both artistically and commercially, culminating with today’s film, Grand Illusion, which was released in 1937.

“This is a movie that melts in your mouth – the fluency, visual modesty and heartbreaking grace with which it tells its rueful WWI-POW story is as good as the medium gets.”
Michael Atkinson, Village Voice

“Grand Illusion is a pacifist elegy masked as a prison break thriller, a meditation on the meaninglessness of chivalry and the futility of war.”
moviediva.com

Though lauded by critics and financially a resounding success, Grand Illusion was banned in Germany and Italy.

In 1939, flush with success, Renoir released The Rules of the Game, a cutting satire on the mores of French society. It was a devastating failure, mocked by critics, rejected by audiences, and banned in France. Adding insult to injury, the original negative was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. In the 1950’s, two French film enthusiasts, with Renoir’s assistance, pieced together a new print of the film. Today, Rules of the Game is frequently included in critics’ lists of the greatest films ever made.

After the crushing failure of Rules, Renoir moved to Italy, then back to France, and eventually settled in Hollywood. Unsurprisingly, he had difficulty finding suitable projects in the U.S. While he directed several films during this period, none came close to the critical or artistic success of the films he made in France during the 1930’s.

In 1946, Renoir became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1949 Renoir traveled to India and made The River, his first color film. In the early 1950’s, he returned to Europe and made three Technicolor musical comedies in a row. As film projects dried up, he turned to writing, publishing a well-received memoir about his father and a novel.

In 1969, he made what would be his final film, Le Petit théâtre de Jean Renoir (The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir), a tribute to the student demonstrations happening at the time.

His health failing, Renoir spent the last years of his life chilling in his Beverly Hills crib. He penned a memoir about his beloved cousin, Gabrielle, who had taken him to puppet shows as a child. “She taught me to detest the cliché.” he wrote. This memoir concluded with the words he had often spoken to his cousin when they were young: “Wait for me, Gabrielle.”

Jean Renoir died in Beverly Hills in 1979.

Synopsis

We are in a French officer’s canteen during WWI. A poster on the bar reads: Liquor Kills! Liquor Makes you Crazy! The Squadron Leader Drinks It. (?)

Lt. Maréchal (played by the manly yet sensitive, tousle-haired and dimple-chinned Jean Gabin) is planning to go on leave.

gi_gabin

Instead, he is ordered to take Captain de Boeldieu (he of the impeccable manners, unwavering commitment to esprit de corps and pencil-thin mustache) up to “resolve an enigma” in photographs taken by a spy plane.

Some time later, on the German side, Captain von Rauffenstein (played by the bald and barrel-chested Erich von Stroheim, a world-class director in his own right) comes in from a flight: “I just shot down a plane near the sugar refinery,” he announces. “If they are officers, invite them for a drink.” The officers are Maréchal and Boeldieu, and they are brought in to dine as guests. Maréchal’s arm is broken, so a German officer cuts his meat for him. As they sit down to eat, a wreath is brought in, honoring another French officer who was shot down. The preservation of chivalry in wartime is a theme that pervades the film.

Maréchal and Boeldieu are taken to Hallbach P.O.W. camp for Officers.

“Officers will be treated with the consideration due their rank. However… Large crowds are forbidden. You must not insult the German people. If you try to escape, we will shoot you.” Etc.

Of course, an escape plan is already underway. As another officer washes Maréchal’s feet (chivalry!), he reveals the details: “We’re digging at night…”

After the guard closes the door, the prisoners put a blanket over the window, move a cot, remove the floorboards, and begin digging.

They are shoring up the tunnel with wood from the theatre, and dropping the dirt in the garden. They plan to come up in the garden, behind the buildings.

There is a noise outside; German soldiers are bringing in a dead prisoner. “He tried to escape, but we caught him in that garden over there, behind the buildings…”

The digger passes out from lack of oxygen in the tunnel. Boeldieu: “Whose turn tomorrow?” “Yours” “I understand crawling is excellent exercise” he says, adjusting his monocle.

The prisoners are putting on a vaudeville show, practicing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” A guard is searching through the chest of costumes for contraband.

Trying on the costumes, the prisoners discuss women: “Dresses are short now. Just below the knee.” “So I hear. How I’d love to see that!” “Then put it on!” “Not him. He never shaves.”

One of their compatriots comes out in a dress and wig, and, well, he’s kinda sexy. All the men stare in silence. Gulp.

In the center of camp, young Germans march: “Outside, children play at being soldiers,” remarks one of the prisoners. “In here, soldiers play like children.”

The prisoners talk about their reasons for escaping. Boeldieu: “A golf course is for golf. A tennis court is for tennis. A prison camp is for escaping.” Cheerio, old chap! Jolly good!

Another soldier mentions that he is a vegetarian. “Judging by your medals, your vegetarianism didn’t interfere with your duty.” “Or prevent my wife from cheating on me.”

The Germans celebrate the capture of Douaumont. The officers consider canceling their vaudeville show, but decide to proceed. Maréchal invites the German officers.

The show is a success, though the German officers are not down with drag routines and sit stone-faced. Maréchal interrupts the show with breaking news: The French have retaken Douaumont! The prisoners sing a patriotic song (I’m guessing, because it was not subtitled). Maréchal is placed in solitary, and starts to go nuts, digging a tiny hole in the wall with a spoon.

The Germans recapture Douaumont. Maréchal grows a Don Johnson beard in solitary and rails at his captors: “I can’t take it! It stinks of shit in here! I want to hear a French voice! Have I already mentioned the overpowering smell of shit?”

Only four more days until his buddies tunnel under the wall, but Maréchal is still in solitary. Finally, he is released.

On the day they plan to break through, however, the officers are moved to a new camp. Maréchal tries to alert the new, American occupants to the nearly-finished tunnel under their barracks, but Americans don’t speak sissified Frenchy talk, and Maréchal’s efforts are for naught.

Our heroes are taken far across Germany to the Wintersborn camp; a castle in the mountains. It is run by their old friend von Rauffenstein, now sporting a neck brace and white gloves (to cover some horrible burns he received in battle).

We find that our heroes have made several escape attempts in the intervening time: through the sewers, through heating vents, disguised as women…

“The situation is different here,” von Rauffenstein informs them flatly. “Nobody escapes from this fortress.”

von Rauffenstein has instituted French regulations at the camp (chivalry!). He takes the French officers on a tour, demonstrating that escape is impossible.

“I’m sure you are familiar with the Maxim gun?” he asks. Maréchal answers by nodding and pointing to his injured arm and leg. That gets them all to reminiscing about Maxim’s restaurant in Paris. “That reminds me,” says von Rauffenstein. “I used to know a girl there, in 1913. Her name was… Fifi.”

No, I am not making this up.

Their old friend Rosenthal is there, as well. Winter comes. Soldiers toss snowballs outside. Again they begin planning an escape, hiding a rope outside the window. “Give me your word that you have nothing contraband in this room,” von Rauffenstein demands of Boeldieu.

“You have my word,” Boeldieu replies (because the rope isn’t actually IN the room, see?). “But why my word, and not theirs?”

“The word of a… Rosenthal? The word of a Maréchal?” von Rauffenstein sniffs derisively.

Later, von Rauffenstein speaks to Boeldieu privately. “I used to be a combatant. Now I am a bureaucrat, a policeman.” While he speaks, von Rauffenstein tends a geranium in a pot by his window. Symbolism? Fucking A it’s Symbolism.

“I don’t know who will win this year,” the German concludes. “Whatever the outcome, it will mean the end of the von Rauffensteins and the Boeldieus.”

Maréchal thanks Rosenthal for sharing his deluxe food parcels with the crew. Rosenthal admits that it is partly out of pride: “Most people think we (Jews) are stingy. Wrong. We’re often generous. Unfortunately, along with that quality, Jehovah gave us an overdose of pride.” To which Maréchal responds, reasonably: “To hell with Jehovah!”

Once again: No, I am not making this up.

The Russians have received a large crate “from our Czarina” and invite our heroes to join them in a feast. Hoping for vodka and caviar, the French officers accept. The crate turns out to be full of schoolbooks, and a fight erupts. The Cossacks aren’t happy, the officers observe, as the crate goes up in flames.

The guards rush in to quell the book-triggered uprising. Note to Self: This would be an excellent time to escape, while the guards are preoccupied…

Boeldieu offers to cause a distraction so that Maréchal and Rosenthal can escape. He has a plan, which is too complicated to describe here, but it involves the following elements: minibikes, jumpsuits, homemade wooden flutes, and pole vaulting.

Maréchal tries to thank Boeldieu for his sacrifice, but his senior officer avers: “I’m not doing this for you personally, so there’s no need to get mawkish.”

“Say what you want, but where there are Germans, there is order!” proclaims a German guard. Then the flute symphony distraction begins. “Confiscate those flutes at once!” 15 minutes later, the rackets start up again. Maréchal says goodbye to his superior officer, and the escape is ON!

Boeldieu leads von Rauffenstein on a chase through the castle, taunting the German with the rebellious sounds of a wooden flute. von Rauffenstein sadly aims a gun at his beloved enemy: “You understand that if you do not obey me now, I must shoot you. I dread to do that. I beg you, man to man, please come back.” (chivalry!)

“That’s damn nice of you, Rauffenstein, but it’s impossible,” replies Boeldieu. True to his word, von Rauffenstein shoots. As he cradles the gut-shot Boeldieu, getting some bloodstains on his pristine white gloves in the process, a guard interrupts with important news: “Maréchal and Rosenthal have escaped!”

Von Rauffenstein sits by the dying Boeldieu. “Forgive me.” “I would have done the same. French or German, duty is duty.” (chivalry!)

Boeldieu dies. Von Rauffenstein looks out the window. He cuts the flower off the geranium.

Rosenthal and Maréchal are on the run in the countryside, living on sugar cubes and coat buttons. Limping, starving, bickering. “I never could stand Jews!” yells Maréchal, half-mad with hunger. “A bit late to tell me that now!” responds his Jewish friend.

They hide in a barn, and are surprised by a farm woman, who invites them into her house and feeds them. Her name is Elsa, she has a young daughter (Lotte), and her husband and brothers are all dead. More to the point, she’s pretty. Maréchal begins to settle in, feeding the cows, dressing like a country gentleman, learning German.

The soldiers make a nativity scene for Lotte. Maréchal and Elsa fall in love.

Eventually, it is time for the escaped prisoners to move on, to cross the mountains to Switzerland and freedom.

“I’ve been alone too long! I’ve waited too long!” cries Elsa, despairing.

Maréchal promises to return when the war is over, and the soldiers depart. They consult a map, but it is confusing. “You can’t see borders,” Rosenthal says. “They’re man-made. Nature couldn’t care less.”

They decide to say their goodbyes now, in case they die before reaching Switzerland.

“So long, you dirty Jew.”

“So long, you filthy dog.”

On a hillside, they are spotted by a German patrol. The snipers take aim, but their superior officer stops them. “Don’t shoot! They’re in Switzerland!”

What I Liked

What a fun, tremendously enjoyable and accessible film! The black-and-white cinematography looks brilliant, the script hits all the right notes, the character acting is delectable, the suspense works, the comedy works, the romance works. This is classic old-school Hollywood filmmaking at its apex, except that it was made by the Frenchies.

Strangely enough, I watched Grand Illusion a decade or more ago, and it didn’t do much for me at the time. Some of it might have been the print: I remember watching a poor VHS copy on a small TV, whereas this time I watched a newly-remastered DVD in the projection room. I dunno. I can only tell you that this time around, I recognized Grand Illusion as the granddaddy of all POW escape movies.

I loved ultra-refined, monacle-wearing Pierre Fresnay as Boeldieu, with his perhaps-outdated sense of honorable sacrifice. I also loved the roguish but sweet Jean Gabin as Maréchal; his banter with Rosenthal and his growing love for Elsa both rang true. In fact, the banter between all of the characters is another high point of Grand Illusion.

Finally, I loved the ways that the script subtly but effectively worked its themes of the importance (but also, perhaps, futility?) of chivalry and the essentially false and divisive nature of nationalist identity.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

Although he fit the part physically, I found Erich von Stroheim to be a bit wooden in his portrayal of von Rauffenstein.

There is one section, during the transfer of the main characters from Hallbach to Wintersborn, where I felt that some footage must be missing. I think that the montage was telling us that the French officers were placed in several other camps between the two, but that was not clear to me. I thought that transition could have been handled less elliptically.

Should You See It?

Oh, hell yeah. If you enjoyed The Great Escape or Stalag 17 or Bridge on the River Kwai, I wager those films would not exist if Grand Illusion had not been made first. Don’t be scared by the country of origin: Grand Illusion might be the most “Golden Age of Hollywood” French film I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended.

Next: Häxan

6 Comments

  1. I’ve been browsing through the “New York Times Guide to the Best 1000 Movies Ever Made” and there’s an excellent review of GI. Here are a few choice excerpts:

    “For a war film it is astonishingly lacking in hullabaloo.”

    “Renoir cynically places a decadent aristocrat, a German career officer, in command of the camp; he places his French counterpart among the prisoners. Theirs is an affinity bred of mutual self-contempt, of the realization of being part of an outgrown era.”

    “The elegant Captain de Boeldieu respected them as soldiers, admired them as men, faintly regretted he could not endure them as fellow beings.”

    Those NYT critics are so literate!

  2. War is heck. This was an oddly civil prisoner-of-war film. The men were so polite to each other, I had trouble, at the beginning, following who was on which side. After a while, I started wondering if this was going to be one of those very twisted kinds of stories, where the “bad” guys are super nice, and then just when you think everything is going to be sort of okay, they turn sadistically horrible. I’m still not sure if that is, in fact, what was going on.

    When it comes to making a war movie, torture is often an included element, but the main torture scene here was the theater group’s performance. 😉 On a serious note, however, when the first soldier who got fully decked out in drag asked the others how he looked, and all the other soldiers stopped in their tracks to stare at him, it spoke volumes about the fundamental torture of being held captive. I remembered to appreciate the basic freedom I take so much for granted.

    I only felt mildly sorry for the prisoners when, without warning, on the day they were going to complete their tunnel and make a break for it, they were shuffled off to a different camp. The men just didn’t seem too upset about it, so neither was I. I liked the scene where Lt. Marechal tried unsuccessfully to communicate with one of the new American [British?] prisoners about the tunnel on which they had been working, in order to give the Americans the benefit of the Frenchmen’s efforts to escape. That was one of the more poignant scenes in the movie.

    The interplay between Capts. Boeldieu and Rauffenstein was interesting and genuine. Instead of the usual power play and head games, the two men were having a real discussion. After a while, they seemed to agree to disagree, and there was mutual respect between them.

    The point of the movie was the classism, which cuts across the different nationalities of the soldiers, and about which the captains were in disagreement. We are supposed to side with Boeldieu, who serves as the decoy so that lower-class Marechal and Cartier can escape. But Boeldieu’s sacrifice was given such an undramatic touch that once again, I didn’t find myself caring too much. The more powerful scene was when Rauffenstein cut his carefully tended flower, presumably as an offer of respect for the dead Boeldieu.

    The casting was an issue for me, as the actor who played Marechal was much too regal in his bearing and demeanor, in my opinion, to show the needed class difference between him and Boeldieu. And the story felt kinda chunky, as if it was written specifically as a stage play, with acts and scenes, and then mildly reworked for the screen.

    I liked most of the acting, which was fairly subtle (except for Carette as over-the-top Cartier). The film had a nice visually rich texture, and the close-ups of Elsa were beautiful.

    Did the later versions of “Heidi” look back to this movie and Elsa, for direction in regards to casting?

    Did “The Sound of Music” copy the trekking-through-the-Alps scenes from “Grand Illusion”?

    Overall, I would give this film a big “meh,” as someone else here once said.

    [OF COURSE I remember Steve Martin choking whilst trying to speak French! You are not alone, and I haven’t heard any crickets since the last time I was home in Montana.]

    [Janus is the Roman god of doorways and passages. Mars is the Roman god of war; Ares is the Greek god of war.]

    [I had the same overall impression as Matt, and I’m sure that I would appreciate this film much more on a second viewing.]

  3. blah, blah, blah…where’s the bloodshed?! Meditation on Male relationships…decline of aristocracy…divisive nature of national identities…PHOOEY! I want suspense, I want intrigue, I want some good ol’ ass whuppin’! Not some mamby-pamby discourse on civility in times of conflict. Where’s my Red Bull!? Where’s my Jagermeister? Where’s my mullet, gun rack and Confederate Flag?

    I’m kidding, of course. Probably if I ever saw this film again…I would have the same insight that you have. For now though, I wanted a bit more ACTION!

  4. Oh, and if anyone within the sound of my voice is a Monty Python (and alumni) fan, check out Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ Ripping Yarns series, which has a fantastic P.O.W. breakout episode, titled: “Escape from Stalag Luft 112B”

  5. It’s funny; the feelings you describe are precisely the feelings I had the first time I watched Grand Illusion, years ago. This time, though, it really resonated with me. I think that in the interim, I had read enough about the film to realize that it was less an action film than a meditation on male relationships, the importance/futility of chivalry, the decline of the aristocracy, the essentially divisive nature of national identities, etc. This time around, I really fell in love with the characters, delighted in the banter, reveled in the glorious b/w cinematography, and genuinely bought into the sweet last-act romance. As you point out, the fact that it’s a WWI film as opposed to a WWII film is significant.

  6. “Welcome to the Grand Illusion, come on in and see what’s happening…pay the price…get the tickets for the show…” – Styx

    Sadly, the film “The Grand Illusion” is not about a decrepit old movie house/theatre. It is about…wait for it…WAR! What the f*ck? Is Janus the God of War or something?

    I refer to this film as “Hogan’s Heroes goes to World War I.”

    The film starts with a bunch of Frenchie pilots hanging out and talking smack (as pilots are wont to do) and making plans for a little hanky-panky. But when an officer and pilot fly off to do said hanky-panky (I think), they get shot down by the nasty Germans. Oh, wait, this is World War I, the Germans aren’t nasty but a civilized group of gentlemen. Quick to pour you some cognac and throw a nice dinner in front of you – even if you ARE the enemy.

    Led by great film director and actor Eric Von Stroheim, a friendship is quickly formed with the French pilot and officer with his German captors. As soon as you can say “strudel” the Frenchies are placed in a POW camp that is like a nicer “Motel 6.” This is where the “Hogans Heroes” come into play. Certainly they don’t want to be there and they’re plotting their escape but everyone is having a grand time, getting mail from home (how was it addressed…I wonder), hanging out, having a laugh, or two – even putting on a show (in drag).

    Oh, but back to that escape. They plan (as they always seem to) to tunnel their way out. What to do with the dirt? Well…hide it in the garden. In one of the films funniest moments the French soldiers wander out into the garden and dump the dirt – one LITERALLY bringing a bag of soil and dumping it on the ground. I had figured it would be like “The Great Escape” where they serendipitously dump the dirt through small holes in their pants pockets…here they might as well bring out a friggin’ wheel-barrow.

    After the “show” (again, in drag), the pilot character (I never really got their names down…Maracheal?) gets thrown in the “brig” for trying to escape. We later learn that he tried to escape numerous times. Still, no hot irons, no lashings, no gun shots, just a: “You tried to escape. Stop that you rascal!”

    The day before the “great escape” they’re told they are going to be sent to a DIFFERENT POW camp. What bad timing.

    In the new camp the pilot, officer and another friend from the previous camp get re-introduced back with Eric. He, once again, takes a liking to the pair and strikes up an honest, caring (dare I say LOVING) relationship with the officer. Simply they are both cut from the same cloth and have to look out for each other.

    The Pilot and cohort still want to escape, though. Might as well. Sure the food is good, and they get mail (???) and get to read books and relax but, golly…if you’re in a POW camp, you’ve got to ESCAPE.

    After they realize the guards can be easily distracted (and after they’ve created a 200 foot long rope out of…I can’t recall) they decide to order up some flutes and have a big “flute-a-palooza” to distract everyone. When that doesn’t really work, they resort to banging pans together. Feeling guilty, or magnanimous, or just knowing that his relationship with Eric (they both wear monocles) will give him a free pass – the officer decides to sacrifice himself for his friends to allow them to escape.

    In the process of the escape the officer gets shot in the stomach (Eric says he was aiming for his leg) and dies. Eric is very upset by this…the horrors of war (note: other than a body on a stretcher…this is the only “horror” there is in this war).

    Now in the countryside our pilot and his buddy hide out and try to escape. They soon run out of both food and patience (with each other) but decide to hide out in a barn. Seems the barn belongs to a woman who has lost all her family (including 3 brothers and her husband) in the war (“The table is very empty…”). Looking for some companionship, or at the very least, someone to sit at the table, she welcomes the two French men into her home.

    I was not sure how long they stay there, but they do celebrate Christmas with her and her cute daughter and long enough for the pilot and the mother to do a little hugging and cuddling and falling in love.

    Finally, though, the pair must be on their way. They make it to Switzerland just as some Germans make it over the hill and shoot at them and then say… “Oh, wait, they’re in Switzerland now, lets go get a beer.”

    FIN! (and, yes, the film has “FIN!” at the end)

    What I liked:

    Well…I liked the acting. I thought the story was pretty solid all around. The photography was beautiful (much of it done outside – not in stifling sets). The story was good…ish. The farm woman at the end looked exactly how I thought a farm woman WOULD look like, plain and pretty – not some vogue model.

    The gay undertone was quite funny when it would pop up (“Like making love to a little boy!” – one quipped when heard that women where cutting their hair short).

    The film was surprisingly funny in parts but not as heartbreaking or heart-rending as some of the previous war films in this collection. Nor was the film much an indictment of war. Just, well, like “Hogan’s Heroes.”

    What I didn’t like:

    I guess the only thing I really did NOT like about the film was the constant changes in languages and the usage of subtitles. Many scenes someone would be talking in French, slide into German, pop in a few sentences in English and then talk in German again, but then with no subtitles. I had this sneaking suspicion I was losing some of the dialogue here and there.

    As I said about the story – it was good…ish. I wished for more conflict, more intrigue (especially when you’ve got soldiers on the run). A car going by, near captures, maybe even a little more bloodshed to ramp up the story…just a bit.

    Bottom line:

    Not bad, not great. Had its moments. Like, well, “Hogan’s Heroes.”

    Addendum:

    Due to the fact that I was still unsure of which war we were talking about here (I assumed it was WWI) I watched the “introduction by Renoir.” Renoir talked about how the film was banned in numerous countries, how it was edited and how it’s really a story about people and relationships. I can see that. I guess I just wanted a bit more.

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