Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Art House in the Middle of the Street #8: Grand Illusion

There's no grand philosophical project behind Charge Shot!!!'s new feature. Jordasch's mom got him Janus Films' absolutely untouchable Essential Art House box set, and he's going to watch the whole thing. It's a behemoth set, collecting 50 films released since 1956 by one of the first distributors to bring honest-to-goodness world cinema to U.S. shores. The films contained in the collection serve as a crash course in world cinema, encompassing everything from major works of the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealist period to films from lesser-known corners of the filmmaking world, including Brazil and Poland. The collection is 50 discs, weighs 16 pounds, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it.

Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion has the distinction of being the first film to be confiscated by Nazi propaganda  minister Joseph Goebbels following Germany's invasion of France in World War II. It's a testament both to the incisiveness of the film's message and the subtlety of Goebbels' sensibilities as a censor that he declared Grand Illusion "Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1." Grand Illusion is certainly an indictment of the creeping fascistic tendencies in 1930s Europe, but it's not simple polemic. Powell and Pressburger's anti-Nazi 49th Parallel traffics in simple stereotypes in order to communicate the clearest message possible: Nazi punks fuck off. (They'd show off their subtler side with the multifaceted portrayal of a blustery Major General in 1943's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.)

Grand Illusion never settles for something so simple. It's an anti-war film, yes, and it has few kind things to say about the reconstituted aristocracy of fascism, but it never harangues. It's a film that hardly ever raises its voice. But what it whispers about the futility of war and its social, philosophical, and racial underpinnings has reverberated through our discussions of the same since its release more than eighty years ago.

Renoir follows a group of French soldiers as they're shuttled from one POW camp to the next during World War I. The soldiers while away their days drinking cognac smuggled in by Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), putting on plays, and, of course, plotting their escape. Jean Gabin plays the working class Lieutenant Maréchal, who's not particularly interested in the finer things discussed by the other soldiers ("The theater's too deep for me; I prefer bicycling").

Renoir presents a fairly striking demographic cross section of France during the first World War, including not just members of the working and upper classes but also a French Jew (Dalio's Rosenthal) and even a young black man. Frenchmen end up sticking by Frenchmen, but the boundaries between enemies aren't particularly stark. Early in the film, French Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and German Captain von Rauffenstein (the great Erich von Stroheim), both aristocrats, learn that they run in the same social circles, sharing friends and even a love interest. Rauffenstein even goes so far as to preclude Boeldieu's bunk from inspection late in the film.

I shall look forward personally to exterminating you, Mr. Bond
Maréchal's the face of Grand Illusion, but Boeldieu is the heart. His conversations with Rauffenstein are the crux of Renoir's message about the coming of democratization in Europe and around the world. Rauffenstein views the dissolution of their class as a tragedy. Equality, he thinks, is a "charming legacy of the French Revolution. Boeldieu recognizes its inevitability and sees it as a change for the better.

Though the line that gives the film its title refers to the idea that the war in the film will be the last war in history, Renoir fills his film with illusions: the theater, the lines between friend and enemy, the bonds of nationalism, the strictures of class. Ultimately, his portrait of war is damning in its emptiness: it fights for nothing, it stands for nothing, and it means nothing. It is, in other words, "a grand illusion."

Next Week - Milos Forman's Loves of a Blond

- Photo via Listal