First is a precarious position to be in, for in retrospect you stand in for the entire legacy (or, at least, for inaugurating the legacy) of the thing itself. It’s tough being the first, and can be burdensome. And of the first ten movies that were admitted into the Criterion Collection, there are some confounding choices. The Lady Vanishes (Spine #3), for instance, is a great film, but hardly amongst Hitchcock’s best (or even his best British work). It’s an…interesting choice for the first Hitchcock film in the DVD collection that would come to define 21st century cinephilia. But then again, way back in 1998, whose to say that the Criterion Collection had any idea the reputation it would cultivate?
Criterion’s choices for its first two releases, however, are pitch-perfect. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the film that defined his legacy and had a greater influence on world cinema than even his Rashomon, sits prominently at Spine #2. And Jean Renoir’s anti-war, prewar masterpiece, Grand Illusion, sits deservedly in Criterion’s #1 spot, with the weight of important classic and contemporary cinema resting comfortably on its shoulders.
Grand Illusion may admittedly not have the empirical evidence of definitive influence of Seven Samurai (in other words, it has yet to be remade into a Western). But that is perhaps to its benefit. While Kurosawa made tens of samurai films, Renoir never made another movie quite like Grand Illusion, and the film still occupies a singular place in the history of war cinema – both in terms of what the film itself attempts to accomplish and its history upon the onset of an actual war. And seventy-five years after its initial release in France, Grand Illusion remains a powerful and nuanced statement about the futility and contradictions of nations at war. It’s perhaps the greatest war film ever made.
It Never Delves into ‘War is Hell’ or Anti-War Grandstanding Clichés
Most American and many European war films since the 1970s have fallen into one of several categories: the war-is-hell narrative about soldiers and their sacrifices (i.e., Saving Private Ryan), the anti-war soapbox screed (i.e., the great Coming Home or the abysmal Lions for Lambs, though this can also be found in combination with the first category, like Born on the Fourth of July), or the espionage/procedural (think Valkyrie or The Counterfeiters). Grand Illusion’s narrative chronicling the attempts at escape on behalf of a band of French POWs at a German camp may place the film most comfortably in the third category, but unlike A Man Escaped or The Great Escape, Grand Illusion is hardly about the glory of the engineering of the escape itself. The film uses its POW camp setting as a means for exploring the absurdity of war, but without engaging in either of the first two aforementioned clichés that have dominated war genre filmmaking since.
On the surface, Grand Illusion’s view of war is surprisingly innocent, almost romantically nostalgic for an era gone by. WWI was, of course, an incredibly violent and devastating war. It was the first major war to implement chemical warfare (illustrated in harrowing detail in All Quiet on the Western Front) and, as the name “WWI” indicates, it set a standard for the global implications of warfare that has come to similarly characterize most international conflicts since. It’s strange that Grand Illusion would be so rosy-eyed over what can be accurately credited as the first of many modern wars that would dominate the twentieth century.
Grand Illusion depicts a war that employs rules, a war run by men who hold mutual respect for one another, all in the name of performing their national duty and bringing the godforsaken conflict to a close. The film depicts a war that, in Renoir’s words upon reflecting back on the film after WWII, was “based on fair play, a war without atom bombs or torture.”
But this is not to say that Grand Illusion is a film that endorses the warfare of the decades prior that it reflects on. The film’s faint layer of nostalgia is not an endorsement of a certain conduct of war. Grand Illusion is, instead, an antiwar statement of admirable thoughtfulness and nuance. Grand Illusion is…
Masterfully Beautiful, Incredibly Smart, and Emotionally Layered Filmmaking
Grand Illusion is one of the central texts in the French Poetic Realist style, an artistic tendency connected through iconic interwar filmmakers like Renoir and Marcel Carné whose defining artistic tenet (at least according to André Bazin) was the shared employment of the long shot to allow the viewer’s eye to explore the scene without the manipulation of attention characteristic of classical Hollywood’s filmmaking style.
The admirable trust in audience intelligence employed by French Poetic Realists is also evident in the storytelling methods of these films. While Grand Illusion sets up a system of honor and mutual respect in its portrayal of strict adherence to the rules of war between the Allies and the Central Powers, it also explores the absurdity inherent in the very distinction between Allies and Central Powers.
Renoir posits national identity as the source of all national conflict; so while it’s pride in one’s nation that motivates the German Captain/Major von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) to respect his prisoner, Captain de Bouldieu (Pierre Fresnay), it’s that same pride that caused them to go to war in the first place.
Grand Illusion is a film about the absurd differences that define us, divide us, and are ultimately the source of the world’s conflicts. The film satirizes national borders, class distinction, religious identity, and status within military hierarchies. Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) identify with one another through their shared nation and thus collaborate in their escape, but once conflict erupts between them as a result of diminishing food supplies, they are quick to put the other down for their differences – Maréchal insults Rosenthal for his Jewish heritage, a moment of anti-Semitism that (perhaps unintentionally) echoes WWII more acutely than any other moment in the film. When Maréchal and Rosenthal make it to the Swiss border, Marenchal states that it looks no difference than France, and nearby German soldiers (in the film’s final, and unexpectedly comic, moment) don’t shoot them because of the invisible border they’ve all agreed to see. It’s a wonder that Grand Illusion wasn’t distributed with the title of Renoir’s next film, The Rules of the Game.
Grand Illusion doesn’t ask, “Can’t we all get along?” The film argues that we already do, as the lost in-translation romance between Maréchal and German farmer Elsa (Dita Parlo) as well as the friendship between von Rauffenstein and de Bouldieu illustrate. The “grand illusion,” the source of human conflict, is the absurd differences that we’ve all agreed to live our lives based upon. War may have its rules of respect, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less absurd than the other rules (i.e., national borders) that we’ve agreed to.
A Dangerous Film For Dangerous Times
Grand Illusion was banned in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and became lost during the French Occupation. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, it’s a miracle that this masterpiece survived WWII. Though the film was made under the assumption that France would soon enter another international conflict, thus continuing the cycle of absurdity depicted here, the incredible differences in warfare between WWI as represented by Grand Illusion and WWII from public knowledge could not have been something that Renoir and company had the foresight to predict. Where nations of men partook in the absurd grand illusion in WWI, Renoir seems to state the codes of honor emanating from those rules of conduct were the only thing keeping us sane as a human race. With WWII, any preconceived notion that the game had any rules goes out the window. While Grand Illusion is a shrewd condemnation of war, it emanates a certain foresight as to how those rules of war would soon become lost.
What makes Grand Illusion such a rich film is this central, fascinating contradiction: its acknowledgement of war’s insanity combined with a nostalgic sense of loss for the codes of conduct which once allowed men to navigate the insanity. Grand Illusion was the final statement of a Europe that would soon descend into the most horrifying of insane states of mind.