La Grande Illusion
Jean Renoir (Fr 1937) Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 13 July 2014; Ticket £5
Here comes a candle to light you to bed…
The most telling psychic feature of Renoir’s movie is that it leaves the viewer with a feeling of hope. And hope is a state of mind in relatively short supply in ‘war’ movies. We leave the cinema after many of these types of films with images of shattered cities, broken bodies and smashed minds. And not much else. La Grande Illusion is of course a film from another era, but it is set in a Europe experiencing death and destruction on an industrial scale and made at a time, 1937, when Europe was again marching towards a blind date with self destruction. The basis of the film’s hope lies in the affirmation by Renoir of the human spirit as a source of strength.
A Wikipedia entry informs that the title of the film was suggested to Renoir by a book of the same title, which proposed that WAR was itself was the great illusion as it changes nothing. But on seeing the film I felt that in relation to the content of La Grande Illusion, this is ultimately too abstract an explanation to justify its content. It seems to me that this title points to some vital element in men’s nature that enables them to survive the most extreme experiences.
In La Grande Illusion, in spite of the desperate conditions in which the characters find themselves, it is their illusions that define them as human and that are a key resource helping them to survive. Those elaborate and sometimes deliberate mental devices intentionally erected to separate and protect ourselves from the raw brutality of existence. Illusions can impede and even destroy us; but they can also give us strength in our relations with actual life. Renoir looks at both sides of the scales.
References to illusions occur a number of times in the film, most notably in a throw away remark by an unaccredited soldier, that the war will end soon. In this soldier’s line, the relationship of the propaganda of ‘coming peace’ to the actuality of present war, is seen by the speaker as such an illusion that it’s a joke. But this need to joke is also an imperative. An impulse to affirm that in fact it is still possible to imagine something else other than a ‘continual’ state of war. The Orwellian state of ‘perpetual war’ envisaged in 1984 between Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia brooks no possibility of peace even as a joke. Perpetual War is beyond a joke, but it is a state which has found itself echoed in the Bush/Blair doctrine of the War on Terror. Perpetual War is the situation that haunts 21st century life, to the extent that today we can barely even joke about the illusion of peace.
Illusions as collective indulgences run through La Grande Illusion. They are voluntarily contracted and dissolved as soon as their purpose is served. The prisoners imagine in great detail, eating a multicourse meal in a grand restaurant . The descriptions of each individual course sustains momentarily the illusion of actual food. Likewise the arrival of a basket women’s garments for dressing up unleashes a collective object fetishism in which the items can replace the actual absence of women. Renoir sketches out the scene sufficiently for it to be clear that sex can be an ambiguous assignment, and that clothes, as outer makers of the gender boundary can in themselves sustain the illusion of the feminine. Illusion creates the a brief triumph of imagination over reality.
Illusion is quite different from lies. The German farmer doesn’t accept the lie, the attempt by the German military to foist on the people the illusion that the battle of Verdun which cost the lives of all her menfolk, was a glorious victory. Lies simply weaken the spirit. But the illusions, fostered as a temporary collective belief strengthen spirit.
Our illusions define us. Renoir also suggests that songs and ritual also contribute to a significant degree to the nature of our being in the world.
Songs run through La Grande Illusion like invisible thread holding both men and the film together. The people sing for the sense of vitality that it lends to being. It is perhaps illusionary but it brings dimensions of power and control into life. The power of the voice to affirm something. In La Grande Illusion song expresses different feelings. When the French POW’s break into the La Marseillaise on the news of the French recapture of a small fort in Flanders, they affirm their Frenchness as a type of challenge. As the German soldiers pile out of the hall to escape the song, that moment releases the men from the oppression of their imprisonment. The singing is a ‘freeing from’ the actual and it is this quality of song, that Renoir characterises as most life endorsing. Again by way of contrast in ‘1984′ there are no songs. Big Brother’s regime has colonised the collective conscience. Big Brother recognising the potency of voice to inspire collective resistance, has banished songs as ‘thoughtcrime’. Songs have been driven to the outer reaches of the psyche where George and Julia struggle as amnesiacs to reassemble the words of the nursery rhythm ‘Oranges and Lemons’. Today it seems song has lost its power to call up collective intentionality. Now in Britain we have no visions sustainable through the voice and our music is reduced to a subjectivity. We are the poorer for it. Big Brother would approve.
The structure of La Grande Illusion is shaped by the ritual. Each phase of the film is defined through ritual: the rituals of escape, of caste, of performance, of Christmas and Birthday. Of course the organisation of attempts to escape by POW’s have a ritualistic nature and to some extent an illusionary quality as there is no escape from the war. But escape also has a symbolic quality and is motivated by a complex of inner drives.
Central to La Grande Illusion are the rituals of class and caste as exemplified by the German Officer von Raufenstein. The ceremonial aspect of the military comprises von Raufenstein’s world, and to a lesser extent that of Boeldieu. The ritualised nature of their exchanges marks them as beings from another era, engaging in a stylised form of communication that is alien to the world in which they live and fight. Von Rauffenstein in particular is so implicitly grounded in vanishing conventions of the Junkers, that he is unable even see the actual situation that confronts him in the castle. Boeldieu in contrast connects with the actual, ultimately by dyeing. But although the illusions supported by ritual exert negative control over Von Rauffenstein and and to a lesser extent Boeldieu, other rituals presented by Renoir are much more positive. They temporarily fold over individuals protecting and invigorating them, making them stronger. The rituals of the shows mounted by the prisoners, the sharing of food, the ritual of Christmas, all are marked by Renoir as key moments of development. In time of hardship deprivation and duress ritual protects what is best in human kind.
Renoir is a director in the classical mould. He brings to film an absolute clarity in the perspective and quality of his shots and an unsurpassed understanding of way in which he wants to construct his movie out of shots.
The camera sustains its privileged perspective, it doesn’t hop around different points of view. The viewer always knows what they ar seeing, as Renoir brings into central frame the object of interest and holds it until its natural tension can be no longer contained and the shot ends. Each shot builds up its own momentum driving the film, as a series of mechanised springs towards its resolution in the snow of Switzerland. As a director understanding the inner logic of shot vectors and tension, Renoir has few rivals in Classical Cinema. Adrin Neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org