The story may have been set in World War I, but it was the spector of fascism that loomed over Renoir’s masterpiece.
It is unkind of Erich von Stroheim to debunk war’s illusions in this graceless year. Only two decades ago it was this same Stroheim, “the man you love to hate,” who sketched for us the aspect of the hideous Hun in Hollywood’s anti-German films. Now he returns in what is outwardly his familiar character-the same white gloves, polished boots, and dextrous cigarette, the same steely stride, and that extraordinary face, glazed and immobile as its ingrown monocle, yet far more eloquent than “acting” ever is. Seeing him thus solidifies old memories, the fine moments in Blind Husbands and Foolish Wives that made him an image of evil fascination. But though the form of his work is the same, its meaning has changed. In Grand Illusion the aristocratic Hun is a pathetic figure from which the menace has gone out. His epicurean elegance is preserved now merely to keep up appearances. Even his strength, his immense vitality, are no longer frightening, because they are atrophying through want of use. It is the same character, yes, but deepened by events, adapted to new conditions. And this development from caricature toward dimension is the measure of von Stroheim’s growth since the florid cynicism of his early days. In the man’s long struggle against box-officialdom, the actor has been humanized.
Like most of Jean Renoir’s films, Grand Illusion is an example of what Harry Alan Potamkin used to call “intensive cinema.” Sketching quite simply the outlines of life in a German prison camp during the World War, Renoir develops the significant incidents one by one, dwelling upon them until they deepen into a motif, an idea, an opinion. What, asks Renoir, is the experience of a man in modern war? On the battlefield it is obvious enough: kill when you must, escape death when you can. But here in the prison camp, removed from the fact and fear of death, men still try to influence an event which is so much larger than their lives. The two who struggle hardest are aristocrats, survivals of a day when individual effort had military value. Von Rauffenstein (click), officer in the imperial Germany army (bow), has been ruined physically in an airplane crash, but he accepts the tedious post of camp commandant in order to continue serving the state. That is the function to which he was bred, without which he does not exist. His French counter-part, Captain de Boieldieu, dies that two fellow-prisoners may escape. He knows that he shivers his painted lance in vain, that this last gift to France is almost theatrical in its futility. But,noblesse oblige! For a gentleman, even death must be a gesture to the world passed away. The men for whom he dies have no sense of personal obligation. Marechal the mechanic and Rosenthal the Jew are democrats. To them war is no profession but a duty, as meaningless as it is unpleasant. Why escape, then? Why not make captivity a a refuge until the thing is over and life’s familiar outlines reappear? But prison camps are made to escape from; one must do something to feel one’s weight in affairs, to seem to affect the issue. So Marechal and Rosenthal start their miserable journey, hardly knowing why they go on. It is good luck, or bad, or merely another experience, that they fall in with them because she wants to hear a man’s tread on the floor again? This is their haven, and in it Marechal finds all a man needs, but even here they are still prisoners of circumstance. There is a danger of finding peace in the midst of war, danger even in loving a girl who speaks another language. So they go back to France, to help push the war through or to wait for it to wear itself out. After t is over, will Marechal come back to the happiness he has found? But yes, naturally. If he is alive.
The picture, especially this last sequence, is played in muted undertones. Even von Stroheim’s powerful presence is subdued to the quiet level of French acting, and Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin, and Dita Parlo are people so easy to know that one thinks of them as contemporaries. For though the picture is a period study, its minor and major illusions still prevail in the divided world of 1938. In the fascist countries men turn back to the Rauffenstein ideal, asserting themselves by their own. To the democracies war is repugnant, but in recent weeks they have seemed to think that in the end it is a necessity. Their illusion, grand only because it is shared by so many people is that good intentions produce good results. They have forgotten Versailles; they have forgotten that war is now a human enterprise beyond the scope of single human beings. Though it may force them into action, their efforts for good or ill have no weight in its vast, incalculable total. Grand Illusion reminds us that this is so, but that is all it does. Renoir, who invokes so skillfully these terrifying images of disintegration, offers in contrast only the old ideal of man’s brotherhood, and his film does not tell us whether it is illusion or reality. Marechal and Rosenthal, plebians that they are, feel kinship with their captors. But their affectionate gestures across the barriers of class and race come too late. Peace is the time for mutual understanding. Once the war mills start grinding, they do not stop until there is nothing left to feed them.