'La Grande Illusion' -- Jean Renoir's classic 1937 film revisited by author and teacher Syd Field partially excerpted from his new book 'Going to the Movies'
My journey in film really began in the spring of 1960 at the University of California at Berkeley. It was my second semester there, and, at the time, I was acting in the production of Woyzeck. I was fortunate to be playing the lead character, and, after one performance, I was introduced the great French film director, Jean Renoir. His son, Alain, was on faculty at the University, and Renoir had just been appointed 'artist in residence' for the coming year.
My relationship with Renoir literally changed my life. You know, there may be two or three times during our lives when something happens that alters the direction of our life; we meet someone, go somewhere or do something we've never done before, and those moments become peak experiences guiding us to where we're supposed to go. Call it fate, call it destiny, call it what you will, it really doesn't matter.
I sat at Renoir's feet for almost a year, while playing the third lead in the world premiere of his play, 'Carola.' Being in his presence was an inspiration, a major life lesson, a joy, a privilege, as well as a great learning experience. Though movies had always been a major part of my life, it was only during the time I spent with Renoir that I turned my focus to the world of film, the way a plant turns towards the sun. Suddenly, I saw movies in a whole new light, as a form to study and learn from, seeking in the story and images an expression and understanding of life. My love for the movies has fed and nourished me ever since.
'Qu'est ce que Le Cinema?' is a question Renoir used to ask before he showed us a movie; 'What is film?' He used to say movies are more than mere flashing images on the screen; 'they are an art form that becomes larger than life.'
One day, Renoir gave the cast and crew a special screening of his film 'La Grand Illusion.' We went into the screening room, made ourselves comfortable and listened while Renoir told us a little about the history of 'La Grande Illusion.' Produced in 1937, the film was viewed in Germany as an indictment of the war. Josef Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, immediately banned it. He despised it so much that he labeled it 'Cinematographic Enemy No. 1' and destroyed every European print he could find. Renoir thought he would never see the film again, but when the American troops marched into Munich in 1945, they uncovered a negative, preserved, ironically, by the Germans themselves. Several years later, under Renoir's supervision, the film was restored, duplicated and then released.
At first, watching the images on screen seemed stilted and old-fashioned; the sound track scratchy, laced with static; the acting broad and theatrical. But all my judgments vanished quickly. The situation depicting the barriers between the upper class, the aristocracy and the common man, the officers and the enlisted men, was sketched simply, without pretense or comment. As the movie progressed, the ideas presented in the film suddenly seemed so profound, so dynamic, so fresh and new to my consciousness that I totally surrendered to the force of the images unfolding on the screen.
The story takes place in 1916 during the First World War. On a photographic reconnaissance mission, Marichal (Jean Gabin), an auto mechanic from Paris, and Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresney), an aristocrat and member of the military elite, are shot down by the German ace Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). They survive the crash, but are captured and sent to a German prisoner of war camp. When the war begins to turn against the Germans, the prisoners are transferred to another prison, a huge castle deep in the heart of Germany. In the kind of irony Renoir loved, the camp is supervised by Von Rauffenstein, now wearing a bulky neck brace. The German is an aristocrat, a member of the military elite, and the only gifts he's received for his glorious participation in the 'art of war,' he explains, is a fractured spine, three pieces of metal in his arms and a metal knee cap.
I began to see what Renoir meant when he talked about 'avoiding the cliché.' Showing von Rauffenstein, the 'enemy,' offering kindness and hospitality to his prisoner, and the way he tenderly cares for his single geranium plant, reveals von Rauffenstein's own dedication to life and living. It presents a dimension of character that is enlightening in its simplicity.
A scene that reveals Renoir's genius in avoiding the cliché is breathtaking. It takes place on Christmas Eve. It's important to remember that during the First World War, The Great War it's called, the Geneva Convention was, for the most part, strictly honored. So, it wasn't unusual for relatives, friends and family to send in crates of food and goodies to aid the prisoners in their health and comfort. What they received was usually intact, and the prisoners would usually share what they received with each other. And now, in this isolated fortress prison castle, Christmas was approaching. To celebrate, it was agreed that the French and English prisoners would put on a special Christmas performance for all the prisoners and guards of the prison camp.
A large crate arrives for Rosenthal filled with women's clothes, which will be used as costumes for the Christmas performance. As Rosenthal unpacks the crate, an English soldier removes a dress, tries it on, puts on a wig, applies some makeup, and with his pipe in his mouth, walks into the barracks looking for a mirror. Suddenly, little by little, the hubbub surrounding the arrival of the crates stops. All eyes turn and stare in silent wonder at the soldier in drag. No words need to be said. The contrast in image, emotion and desire dissolve into silence as the men realize how long it's been since they've seen a woman. It's a stunning moment.
Later, the distraction created by the French aristocrat, de Boeldieu, allows Marichal and Rosenthal to make their escape and begin their trek across the mountains to Switzerland and freedom. It's another one of Renoir's ironies that the German aristocrat should be the one to fire the shot that kills de Boeldieu, his only real 'friend' in prison. His action, of course, represents the death of an old way of life, which has failed to survive the turbulence of the changing times. As one way of life ends, the two Frenchmen escape to freedom to begin a new life. In that sense, the film is as relevant today as the time it was made in 1937.
When the film ended, and the lights came on, I was so moved I could hardly speak. My mind was overwhelmed with the dynamic expression of Renoir's ideas. No wonder critics have consistently named 'La Grande Illusion' as one of the greatest films of all time. Seeing this movie literally opened my eyes to what the movies could be; an intellectual and emotional experience, suffused with a truth and universal appeal that can transcend the boundaries of time.
'Quesque c'est le Cinema?'
'La Grande Illusion.' That is film.