Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Period Piece, Peace Picture: La Grande Illusion Reconsidered

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Period Piece, Peace Picture: La Grande Illusion Reconsidered

Article excerpt

The Athenians used old, well-known stories for their tragedies because their plays were presented at religious festivals, and to be able to foresee the end of the protagonist's life thus not only gave audience members greater empathy with his plight, it also gave them (paradoxically) a taste of what it was like to be a god. In Renoir's film, von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu are fated in our twenty-first-century eyes, and from our own temporary Olympus we can watch an era end. For La Grande Illusion ... dramatizes the end of an era: the world of the Christian aristocratic gentleman, the Europe of church and class that had governed Western history since the fall of Rome. Another world, in growth ever since the Reformation mad the growth of science itself, is on the rise: the humanistic, temporal, secular, democratic world. It is in the First War, the 'Great War," that the two worlds pass, one declining and the other ascendant; and in this film we can see them pass.

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IT MAY NOT be remembered that before World War II, and even for some time after it, Jean Renoir was by no means ranked as the supreme French film director. Marcel Carne, Rene Clair, Jacques Feyder, and Julien Duvivier were all considered at least his equals, or even his superiors. His work, by comparison with theirs, was felt to lack polish and dramatic shape; both technically and morally, Renoir's movies seemed rough, often tentative or self-questioning. It was only around the early 1950s, with the advent of the Cahiers du cinema school of auteurist criticism, that his stock began to rise even as that of the other 1930s directors (with the sole exception of Jean Vigo) fell. Speaking for his fellow Cahiers critics and New Wave directors, Francois Truffaut hailed Renoir as "the father of us all." And his pre-war films were received, upon re-release, with an enthusiasm they had rarely received the first time around. This was particularly true of what many today consider his very best work: The Rules of the Game (1939), whose tragicomic satire of the impuissant French aristocracy had initially been attacked as frivolous, clumsy, and downright incomprehensible; and La Grande Illusion (1937), the anti-war film that quickly disappeared from view with the onset of global hostilities.

My focus here is the latter work, La Grande Illusion, which I consider to be Renoir's supreme masterpiece: a film about universal brotherhood, global peace, and the waste of war that he made on the eve of a then-inevitable World War II--in the world of the Spanish Civil War, of Hitler and Mussolini gulping down the West, of Japan ravaging China. An anatomy of the upheaval of 1914-1918 to show contemporaries how fatal machineries had once been set in motion, to futile end, La Grande Illusion, in a wonderful and important way, is a period piece.

That is, today its pacifist intent, as such, seems a lot less salient because so many more human beings know how useless war is and know, too, that no movie can abolish it. In 1937, by contrast, the pacifist intent of La Grande Illusion was so apparent that the film was banned in Germany by Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, who labeled it "Cinematographic Enemy Number One" and compelled his Italian counterpart to have the film banned in that country as well (though the 1937 Venice Film Festival gave La Grande Illusion the "Best Artistic Ensemble" award). Indeed, it was thought that all prints of the film had been destroyed by the Nazis, but the original negative--strangely preserved by the Germans themselves--was captured by Allied troops in Munich in 1945. Today, the film restored from that negative seems a hard perception of grim inevitabilities, not glibly cynical but, in the largest classical sense, humanely pessimistic: a picture that no longer asks for action but that accompanies us in our experience of a chronically war-torn world, noting our best but prepared for our worst. Since such a state of mind, such undepressed pessimism, is currently widespread, this film continues to speak hopefully, out of the change it incorporates (more on this subject below), to changing humanity. …

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