The Grand Illusion (1937)

Grand Illusion is the kind of film that you can watch once every year from your teens into your old age, and find new meaning with each viewing. The first time I saw Renoir’s masterpiece was on a TV set in a college history class. The restored print had not even been found. It was washed out. The sound quality was bad, and yet I came away realizing that I had just experienced a great work of art. You can listen to Beethoven’s 9th on a scratchy LP and its still Beethoven’s 9th. I not only admired Captain de Boeldieu, I wanted to be Captain de Boeldieu, to put on a pair of white gloves and die for my country as calmly as if I were going to Maxim’s to drink a bottle of fine Bordeaux. My professor corrected me. “That’s the wrong conclusion,” he said. But I was so taken with the romanticism of a doomed Bretagne aristocrat climbing the ramparts of the Wintersborn Castle, playing the flute to distract the Germans so that Lieutenants Marechal and Rosenthal could escape and get back into the war to fight for France, that I had missed how Grand Illusion is a statement about the futility of war.

The next time I saw Grand Illusion, I knew more about the history of France, the First World War, and, above all, the Dreyfus Affair. The film revealed an entirely new layer of meaning. A real life Captain de Boeldieu, not only an aristocrat but a professional soldier, would have been on the side of the anti-Dreyfusards. He would have been in favor of keeping an innocent man on Devil’s Island for the crime of being a Jew. That he could turn to Major von Rauffenstein, his German counterpart, point at Rosenthal and say “his word is as good as mine,” demonstrated an intelligence and ability to rise above anti-semitism to go along with his honor and patriotism. Captain de Boeldieu is a heroic figure like few others in French, American, or any cinema. He has more than physical courage or the willingness to die for a higher idea. He’s able to die for the right higher idea. Captain de Boeldieu doesn’t die for France. He dies because he knows the ideals of the old aristocracy are destructive. That Rosenthal and Marechal are officers and gentlemen, von Rauffenstein regrets, is part of “the charming legacy of the French Revolution.” Captain de Boeldieu, to use a term popular on the “intersectional left,” knows how to “step up and step back.” Rosenthal and Marechal are the future. Democracy is the future. It’s no mystery why Joseph Goebbels declared Grand Illusion “cinematic enemy number one.”

After the United States and Russia got into a conflict over Ukraine, and people in my Facebook feed started talking about another First World War, I decided to watch Grand Illusion again. Major von Rauffenstein treats his prisoner Captain de Boeldieu with the courtesy he deserves as a “gentleman.” I used to think there was something admirable in the idea of their solidarity, even if it wasn’t exactly solidarity, but a recognition of privilege. Our oligarchs today, the gangsters around Vladimir Putin and the bankers and financial swindlers around Barack Obama, seem entirely less civilized. It’s all about smashing and grabbing what you can. Obama declined to prosecute the American bankers who crashed the economy in 2008, accorded them the privileges of their rank, but he had no qualms about freezing the assets of pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs. Our aristocrats, our Goldman Sachs CEOs, our Koch Brothers, Russia’s natural gas and oil barons have no code of honor. They don’t care who they evict from their houses, what kind of poison they feed kids not their own, or how much disinformation they pump out about global warming. Compared to the people Obama works for, Renoir’s Lieutenant Rosenthal, the son of a rich banking family who had enough patriotism to fight for his country, and, once taken prisoner of war, shared his food with the working class Marechal, seemed like a vision of a more civilized age gone forever.

But then I realized that’s not exactly the message Renoir wanted to send. The ruling class in 1914 wasn’t civilized. They were bastards willing to send 8 million young men to their deaths, to destroy Europe for reasons I don’t even think they understood. In 1937, they were getting ready to do it all over again. Rosenthal, Marechal and de Boeldieu may have been admirable as individuals, but they were trapped in a horrible cycle of destruction. Renoir’s original draft had Marechal and Rosenthal escape the Wintersborn Castle only to get back into the war and get killed. Why does de Boeldieu sacrifice his life? Just for the principle of it? He doesn’t exactly like Rosenthal and Marechal. He’s just their superior officer, a captain willing to go down with his ship. He steps aside for the future, but never quite realizes that the future might not be the democracy. It might be something much worse.

Jean Renoir was a left wing filmmaker. So why did he make a humanist film instead of an anti-imperialist one? True, the Soviet Union had degenerated into Stalinist totalitarianism, but in 1917 it was the communists who were leading the movement to end the war, not liberal humanists. That’s when I realized Grand Illusion is even richer and more nuanced that even I, as a great fan of the film, can express in one review. Grand Illusion is an anti-imperialist film.

Let us consider one scene early in the movie. The French prisoners, bored, missing the company of women, stage a musical comedy. They get themselves done up in drag. They invited their German captors. In the middle of a high kicking routine, Marechal rushes to the stage with a German newspaper. “We’ve captured Douaumont,” he says. “We’ve captured Douaumont.” Just then, the musical comedy stops. Men dressed as women snap to attention and sing the Marseillaise. France has won the battle of Verdun. They’ve regained their manhood and their patriotism after weary months as prisoners of war. Later, of course, we see another headline. “Germans capture Douaumont.” It was all useless. War is futile.

Doing a bit more reading on the Battle of Verdun reveals yet another layer of meaning beneath the film’s anti-war message. Douaumont wasn’t retaken for France by white Frenchmen but by the Colonial Infantry Regiment of Morocco, by white French soldiers alongside black Senegalese soldiers. Later, when de Boeldieu, Rosenthal and Marechal are confined to the Wintersborn Castle, we see that one of their fellow prisoners is black. He’s working on a painting. He approaches Rosenthal and Marechal for their opinion but they refuse even to acknowledge him. The same two soldiers de Boeldieau died to help escape, two individuals who have made a heroic effort to overcome their own ethnic differences, who, earlier, were seen celebrating the recapture of Douaumont, won’t even look at a black soldier who almost certainly risked his life at Verdun to do it. History won’t end with a peaceful, unified Europe, Renoir suggests. It won’t end with the end of anti-Semitism or militarism. It probably won’t even end with the fall of European imperialism, but that’s what’s coming.

Dien Bien Phu is less than 20 years away.

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