What an odd yet compelling day! When I arrived to this one-off screening, I was greeted in French by a young lady who showed me to the lounge area, where a selection of French wine was waiting. Having not touched wine since I was a teenager drinking it from a sack, I opted for the beer they had and, while studying my shoes, nursed it, waiting for the film to start. It’s not like I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but the only people there were elderly folk who weren’t alone, and a few younger people who were obviously French students, talking with a man who was to introduce the film, an expert in French Film and author of several books. I really wish I could remember the man’s name but when we were finally led to the cinema, he was introduced and gave us many extremely insightful comments and thoughts on the movie, the actors’ performances, and of course the work of Renoir. Among many other things, we were told that La Grande Illusion was propagandist Goebbel’s ‘cinematic enemy number one’. But the picture survived and was smuggled out of the country. Perhaps this is common knowledge but for me it enriched the experience even further.
The most fascinating, and probably most obvious, element of this film to me was the illusion that so many characters were under. That humans, during times of war, could be this civil, this upbeat. That there was trust and honour shared amongst officers of either side, or people of a certain class. Even the war itself is illusion, as we do not see any battles. We don’t see the frontline, and if I counted correctly, we only see two gunshots. Instead of telling us how horrible war is by showing us violence, Renoir puts us into POW camps, where the mood is very light. Having watched very few films from this era, this experience was unlike any other as I was able to witness a 70-plus year old film on a massive screen, in all its glory. For such an old film, it looked fantastic. From the sixth row back my eyes were feasting on the camerawork and detailing of most scenes, while at the same time feeling a little depressed, knowing that genius like this is dead in the modern cinematic world of CGI, blockbusters, superheroes and comic books.
With German, French and a little Russian being spoken, the film can be hard to keep up with. Perhaps I should have enquired about learning some French. But this doesn’t detract from the movie, and the lines that need to be heard are subtitled appropriately, assuring that the pace and comedy of the film is not lost in translation. Which is one this films greatest achievements: almost any person could enjoy this. Given the comic elements coursing through the film’s veins, one could almost label this a war film appropriate for children. Chaplin’s influence lingers throughout the entire movie. At the film’s end, I could easily see why this film is labelled as a classic, a must watch film. With a war raging in the far distance, this comedic, almost slapstick approach to life in a POW camp is refreshing and took some courage to make, and take part in for the entire cast.
The relationships formed between enemies are fascinating, and again illustrate the optimistic illusion of trust and honour between men in the face of war. Silent-era director Von Stronheim plays the best character here. He represents the optimistic hope in men that the film suggests, but is betrayed because of it. Not only did I think he was by far the best character, he was also one I could relate to in an odd way. I can be too nice for my good, trust people who shouldn’t be trusted, and I have paid the price for this more than once. Back to Stronheim though, let’s not forget that according to Renoir’s memoirs, “he had to study his lines like a schoolboy learning a foreign language.”
By film’s end we are left with an ambiguous scene, letting our minds wonder as to the fate of the two men. The film is a marvellous piece of cinema in its own right, but considering the political climate and the rise of fascism to the west, the film takes on a deeper meaning as it depicts what real human values should be, and how we really should be treating each other, regardless of race or war. And of course these themes are going to be interpreted differently by every person; we are all different. It shows us the folly of war, how when opposing soldiers are brought face to face, they realise that they are all human. It is a pity then that humanity has forgotten this notion and have fought so much against one another since this film was released.
There is obviously so much more to this film, but there is no need for me to regurgitate it. This is what I saw. For a Blindspot entry, and for a 1937 film, I feel extremely lucky to have been a part of this. I was originally planning to watch my picks in backward order chronologically, but the opportunity to watch this on a big screen was too much to pass on. I’m glad I didn’t.
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