Wednesday, May 18, 2016
The Great Illusion
World War I. French military officers—upper class aristocrat de Boëldieu; the wealthy middle class Rosenthal and working class Marechal—are captured on the western front by the German army and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. They spend their time there slowly digging a tunnel in order to flee, but just as they are about to finish, they are transferred to a new camp. There Boëldieu finds a friend in the German general Rauffenstein, who connects with him because he is himself an aristocrat. Boëldieu stages a show for the soldiers while running away, so that Marechal and Rosenthal can escape while nobody is watching them. Boëldieu reckoned that Rauffenstein would allow him to escape - but to his surprise, Rauffenstein shoots him. Marechal and Rosenthal hide inside a farm of a widowed German woman, Elsa, and continue on foot until they reach the neutral Switzerland.
A war film without a single war sequence, "The Great Illusion" is arguably Jean Renoir's finest film, a humble—and very humane—classic of French cinema that also slyly showed a 'class war' which surpasses the ordinary conflict of two militaries: even though they are on two opposing sides, German warden of the camp, Rauffenstein, politely invites French prisoner Boëldieu to his office, because they are both aristocrats, whereas a similar thing is mirrored when the working-class Marechal is losing his mind in the solitary confinement, but a German working-class soldier shows solidarity and tries to comfort him, even later defending Marechal in front of another German soldier ("Why is that man crying?" - "...He is crying because the war is lasting for too long..."). However, despite this solidarity among classes, in the end the new "class", the nation, overrides in Europe of the 20th century. Renoir rises to the occasion and directs the film in a remarkably elegant way—just like Dostoevsky, he makes the story flow fluently despite a very long running time thanks to a careful depiction of characters, their personalities and their interactions, all adding to a bigger picture of a time and society, in this case the symbolic extinction of aristocracy in modern times. The film offers wonderful writing—from Boëldieu's comic remark "A tennis court is for tennis. A prison camp is for escaping", up to the widowed Elsa, who gives one of the greatest anti-war quotes of all times, when she points at the photo of her dead husband and her dead brothers, who all died in the war, and bitterly (and cynically) describes their deaths as "our greatest victories" in war. Renoir delivered an excellent, unassuming little film, whereas he gathered great actors, from Jean Gabin up to Erich von Stroheim as the compassionate German general Rauffenstein, thereby avoiding black-and-white depictions—whereas he even adds a few metafilm touches, since film critic Rob Hill observed how Renoir tried to keep the people in the same frame, thereby giving them equal status.