The Great Anti-War Films Grand Illusion

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Jean
Renoir, son of the great French Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir,
gained his own renown as one of the most significant filmmakers
of the first half of the twentieth century. His classic anti-war
film La Grande Illusion (1937), known to American audiences
as Grand
Illusion
, is considered by many to be among the finest films
ever made.

Like
All
Quiet on the Western Front
and Paths
of Glory
, the action of Grand Illusion occurs during
World War I and focuses on the stalemate between France and Germany.
Unlike those films, however, Grand Illusion eschews any scenes
of trench warfare, and instead examines the futility of war through
the eyes of a group of French POWs.

German
pilot von Rauffenstein (played splendidly by the great silent-era
director Erich von Stroheim) has shot down a French warplane. He
instructs a subordinate to retrieve the two men on the plane, telling
him, "If they are officers, invite them for lunch."

Maréchal
(Jean Gabin), the pilot, and Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay), the aristocrat-turned-officer,
are greeted by their German captors with a seemingly odd sense of
respect and camaraderie. They sit down to a splendid feast. When
Maréchal indicates that he can't cut his meat because of
his injured arm, a German officer offers to do it for him. Maréchal
compliments him on his French. This is the first indication that
while politicians wage war, those forced to fight it don't consider
their "enemies" to be enemies at all.

The
early scenes in the film depict the day-to-day life of the POWs.
Despite their plight, the captives make the best of it, often joking,
laughing and singing amongst themselves. We meet some of the other
prisoners, including Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a wealthy Jewish
banker. He is a hero to his fellow prisoners because his family
sends him fine delicacies (which he graciously shares with all),
so exquisite that the prisoners eat better than their captors.

Later,
the prisoners pour through a shipment of costumes that they will
use to stage a cabaret show. They ask their most fair-faced comrade
to don a dress. Upon seeing him in it, they pause reverentially,
realizing how long it's been since they have seen the real thing,
surely one of the more lamentable deprivations of war.

During
the musical, an announcement is made that the French have recaptured
Doauamont. The prisoners immediately halt the production, doff the
wigs, and launch into a rousing rendition of Marseillaise, the French
national anthem. This scene was the inspiration for a similar scene
in Casablanca.

Despite
the humane treatment they receive from their German captors, several
of the French prisoners hatch an escape plan: they will dig a tunnel
that leads outside the camp. They each take turns doing the digging,
and one of them passes out from a lack of oxygen. When the night
finally arrives for them to make their daring escape, they learn
that they will be transferred to a new POW camp. Just before they
leave, Maréchal attempts to tell an English soldier, who
is being moved into their former quarters, about the tunnel. Unfortunately,
he doesn't speak French, and all of their work has been for naught.

Renoir
employs montage to indicate the passage of time as the prisoners
move from prison camp to prison camp. Rauffenstein, who has been
badly injured in combat, heads the camp where the rest of the action
takes place. He walks around stiffly, encumbered by back and neck
braces.

Boieldieu,
Maréchal and Rosenthal remain from the original group of
prisoners. When the Germans search their room, Rauffenstein orders
them not to rummage around Boieldieu's belongings:

Rauffenstein:
Give me your word you've done nothing here against regulations.

Boieldieu:
I give you my word. But why my word and not theirs?

Rauffenstein:
The word of a Rosenthal? And of a Maréchal?

Boieldieu:
It's as good as ours.

Rauffenstein:
Perhaps.

Boieldieu
is bothered by Rauffenstein's condescendence of his comrades, and
presses him on it when he is invited to Rauffenstein's private quarters
for a drink.

Boieldieu:
Why did you make me an exception?

Rauffenstein:
Because your name is de Boieldieu, career officer in the French
Army, and mine is Rauffenstein, career officer in the Imperial
German Army.

Boieldieu:
My comrades are also officers.

Rauffenstein:
A Maréchal and a Rosenthal – officers?

Later,
Russian POWs receive a crate, and believe it is a shipment of caviar
and vodka from the Empress. As a way of repaying Rosenthal for his
generosity, they invite the French to join them in the decadent
feast. Much to their chagrin, they open the crate to find it filled
with books rather than epicurean treats. Infuriated, the Russians
set fire to the crate and all the German guards rush in. Boieldieu,
Maréchal and Rosenthal realize that if they had been prepared,
they could have escaped during the confusion. They plot to cause
another disturbance, but Boieldieu insists that he will be the distraction,
allowing Maréchal and Rosenthal to break out.

The
men concoct a plan that they know will result in a general roll
call. When Boieldieu does not answer, all the guards search for
him, allowing Maréchal and Rosenthal enough time to flee.
Rauffenstein begs his French friend to surrender, but Boieldieu
refuses, and Rauffenstein shoots him with his pistol.

The
German commandant and his prisoner share a final conversation as
Boieldieu lies in his deathbed:

Rauffenstein:
Please forgive me.

Boieldieu:
I'd have done the same thing. French or German, duty is duty.

Rauffenstein:
Is it very bad?

Boieldieu:
I wouldn't have believed a bullet in the stomach could hurt so.

Rauffenstein:
I aimed at your leg.

Boieldieu:
At 150 yards, with poor visibility, and I was running.

Rauffenstein:
Please don't excuse it. I was clumsy.

Boieldieu:
Of us two, it's not I who's to be pitied. I'll be done for — soon.
But you, you're not finished yet.

Rauffenstein:
Not finished dragging out a useless existence.

Boieldieu:
For an ordinary man, it's terrible to die in war, but for you
and me, it's a good solution.

After
Boieldieu passes, Rauffenstein respectfully closes his eyelids.

Many
statist film historians and critics have argued that the message
of Grand Illusion, especially as depicted in the scenes between
Boieldieu and Rauffenstein, is that the upper classes were somehow
above the war, and that the war precipitated the collapse of the
old order of European society. Perhaps.

But
I would argue that the "grand illusion" is that the mass
killing of innocent conscripted soldiers and civilians can somehow
protect people and make them free. The preposterous idea that a
small group of elitist politicians should plunder their subjects
to prosecute futile and destructive wars is a grand illusion of
the highest order. Another illusion is that the citizenry of one
nation hates the citizenry of another because the politicians of
those nations use war to concentrate and expand their own power.

The
absurd nature of the latter illusion is exposed during the final
scenes when Maréchal and Rosenthal happen upon what they
believe to be an abandoned barn. When a woman enters with her cow,
Rosenthal, who speaks German, explains to her that they are not
robbers, but war prisoners. The woman replies, "I am not afraid."
She welcomes them into her home and feeds them.

The
next day, Maréchal goes to the barn to feed the cow. He speaks
symbolically to the cow, "You're from Wurtemberg and I'm from
Paris, but we're friends anyway."

The
utter futility and pointless death of war is driven home poignantly
when the woman, Elsa, shows her guests pictures on the mantle:

My
husband was killed at Verdun. My husband and my brothers. Liège,
Cherieroi, Tannenberg. Our greatest victories. And now
the table is too big.

The
camera lingers on a large dining table, with only Elsa's young daughter
sitting at it, facing a future without her father and uncles, victims
of a senseless war.

When
Rosenthal's injured leg has healed, the escaped prisoners inform
Elsa that they must leave. Elsa knows that this day would come,
but is saddened at being alone again. "You'll never know the
happiness the sound of a man's step in the house gave me."

As
Maréchal and Rosenthal traipse through the Alps in an attempt
to reach Switzerland, they discuss what the future holds for them
if they make it:

Rosenthal:
You'll rejoin your squadron and I my unit, to fight again.

Maréchal:
We've got to end this stinking war. Maybe it'll be the last.

Rosenthal:
You've still got illusions.

A
contingent of German soldiers spots the two off in the distance.
As they raise their guns to shoot, they are ordered to stop:

Soldier
1: Don't shoot. They're in Switzerland.

Soldier
2: All the better for them.

In
all likelihood, of course, it's not better for them. Their reward
for successfully reaching Switzerland is to return to war, a pointless
and barbarous conflict that will either end their lives or scar
them irrevocably.

Grand
Illusion is a masterpiece, a film that at once examines the
futile nature of war and the boundless optimism of those forced
to wage it. Watch it and ask yourself if the current war is not
just as wasteful, just as hopeless and just as likely to result
in the expanded power of the central government at the expense of
the liberty of the individual, and at the cost of countless lives
and billions of dollars.

An
interesting note about the original film negative and its survival:
Joseph Goebbels considered the film "Cinematic Public Enemy
Number One" and had it seized when the Germans occupied France.
German film archivist Frank Hensel, a Nazi officer in Paris, shipped
it to Berlin. The Russians captured it while they occupied Berlin
and sent it to an archive in Moscow. Later, in the 1960s, the Russian
film archive traded some prints, including Grand Illusion,
with an archive in Toulouse, France. The new owners were unaware
that the print was the original negative, a fact they only discovered
thirty-odd years later. The film has since been restored, including
new subtitles.

Unfortunately,
my video store does not stock the restored version. Hopefully, yours
does. But either way, watching Grand Illusion leaves one
with the indelible impression that war is hell on earth, perpetrated
by rapacious politicians to expand their power. War is the health
of the State.

The
Great Anti-War Films:

October
16, 2001

Rick
Gee (send him mail) is
a freelance writer residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also authors
a monthly column “On Liberty” for The Valley News.

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