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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: La Grande Illusion



GRAND ILLUSION (“La Grande Illusion”) (Also Blu-ray) Four Stars

France: Jean Renoir, 1937 (Lions Gate)

1. A Grand Illusion: The Great War That Can Be Stopped

Few films about war and the men who fight them have the beauty and power and resonance of Jean Renoir’s 1937 Grand Illusion — based by Renoir on his own experiences as a fighter pilot and a Prisoner of War in World War I.  The movie, considered a classic almost from its first release, was premiered in Europe as France and Germany were set to plunge, in a few years, into a far more destructive war and captivity, WWII and the Holocaust. And Renoir wanted his Grand Illusion — which co-starred Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay and Marcel Dalio as captured French officers and POWs Lt. Marechal, Captain de Boeldieu and Lt. Rosenthal, and Erich Von Stroheim as their German prison camp commandant Captain von Rauffenstein — to help avert that catastrophe. Renoir intended his great picture to be a plea for peace: a rejection of the war fever that had gripped Germany under Hitler, and an attempt to renew the simple bonds of humanity and friendship he had seen spring up between the French and Germans soldiers and oficers at the end of his own war.

2. A Grand Illusion: There Are no Borders

Grand Illusion is a tribute to just that: the humanity that could spring up even in the shadows of war and death. In the movie,  de Boeldieu and Marechal, two French pilots shot down together by von Rauffenstein, later become his lunch guests and still later, his prisoners in Wintersborn, a grim castle-fortress where, according to von Rauffenstein,  “nothing grows but nettles.” The picture is about the relationship between comrades-in-battle and between combatants-on-opposite-sides: between men who seem naturally alienated from each other — the jailers from the prisoners, the French from the Germans, the aristocrats from the commoners — but who meet inevitably on the battlefield or in prison, their only common ground. The war pits natural friends, as well as natural enemies, against each other — and the only escape from that conflict, or from a part of it, lies across the snowy mountain border between Germany and Switzerland, an escape that may be only another illusion.

3. A Grand Illusion: The Fusion of Cinema and Poetry The cast is extraordinary. Jean Gabin, as the roughhewn but warm-hearted lumpenproletariat officer Marechal, was both a great film actor and the then  superstar of ‘30s French cinema, France’s most charismatic leading man and sometimes its tragic hero — not only in Renoir’s great 1930s films Grand Illusion, The Lower Depths and La Bete Humaine, but, around the same time, in other masterpieces of French poetic realism by Marcel Carne (Port of Shadows, Le Jour se Leve). Julien Duvivier (Pepe Le Moko) and Jean Gremillon (Remorques).

Gabin became a movie legend because of the way he combined peasant sturdiness, natural grace, sexy savoir faire, and a fatherly warmth that wouldn’t be seen that memorably in French films again until the heyday of Yves Montand. Marechal though is Gabin’s greatest performance — and he beautifully sets off the polish and heroism of Fresnay’s de Boeldieu, a meticulously turned out, idealistic and unselfish comte for whom the phrase noblesse oblige might have been invented. Von Rauffenstein is just as much a nobleman, his body trapped and stiff in a neck brace, his movements robotic, his face suffused with a profound melancholy. The aristocratic von Rauffenstein admires and even loves de Boldieu and is puzzled by the count’s loyalty to the commoner Marechal and the others, despite the ties of birth, breeding, milieu and honor that he and de Boeldieu share, indissolubly. Few scenes in cinema are more gravely, beautifully sad than our last view of Rauffenstein, underscored by Joseph Kosma‘s mournful music, as the Captain cuts the geranium that for him symbolizes his bond with his gallant French opponent.

4. A Grand Illusion: The Gift of Life

Then there is the third major French prisoner, Rosenthal (played by Marcel Dalio, the star of Renoir’s The Rules of the Game). Rosenthal should be the most alienated and separate of them all, since he is Jewish. But Dalio is a truly companionable actor. No doubt his presence angered racists like Goebbels, but Dalio’s Jewishness, and his superb performance, help create an ultimate statement for tolerance and pacifism and against bigotry and Fascism. Why should these men imprison and kill each other? And why should their counterparts in reality?

Could Renoir have foreseen when he and Charles Spaak wrote Grand Illusion, the depth of the  horrors that the next war would unleash? Well, what can an artist, a filmmaker do? He did his best to stop it….. Renoir’s gift of endowing life (the gift of life that his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir had in such abundance too) beats and pulses in the other characters as well: Julien Carette (later the wily poacher of The Rules of the Game) as the bouncy little Paris vaudevillian  Cartier, Gaston Modot (Rules of the Game’s jealous gamekeeper) as the engineer; Dita Parlo, the blonde river goddess of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante as Elsa the German farm widow (whose daughter Lotte has blue eyes); Habib Benglia as the Senegalese prisoner, who has brown eyes. When we watch this movie, or almost any of Renoir’s movies, we re-enter a world, and revisit old friends (and an occasional enemy). And we are both elated and sad, because we know some of those friends must die or leave us. Death is the destroyer of all illusions.

5. A Grand Illusion: The Oscars Go to The Best.

Renoir tried.  He gave Grand Illusion all his skill, all his heart, all his art, everything. Together with the actors and with great collaborators like Christian Matras (cinematography), Eugene Lourie (art direction) and Joseph Kosma (music), he made this matchless cinematic tragedy and poem of wartime camaraderie and friendship, one of the most moving of all films on men at arms. And the world — or part of it — hailed the film, and has hailed it as a classic ever since. Grand Illusion became the first foreign language film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar, againt the cream of the American studio films, and it was defeated by a decent but inferior picture, The Life of Emile Zola, with Paul Muni as the  French novelist who wrote “J’Accuse“ to save Dreyfus from anti-semitism. Almost everyone would now agree that the 1937 Best Picture Oscar was a mistake, that Renoir’s film should have won. It doesn’t matter because…

6. A Grand Illusion: All Men Are Brothers

Renoir’s plea failed. The Second World War broke out. It raged, exploded, worse than anyone could have imagined. Millions died, on the battlefields and in the camps. Whole cities were decimated. There was no reforging of the old soldierly bonds. Jean Renoir, the ultimate French filmmaker of the ’30s, fled France, fled Europe, settled in Beverly Hills, and never returned to live in his own country (except to make a few films — one in 1955 with Jean Gabin, about the Moulin Rouge and the French CanCan). Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared Grand Illusion “Cinematic Public Enemy Number One,” and ordered all prints confiscated and destroyed — except for the treasured private copy of Nazi war minister and Luftwaffe commander (and apparently at times sentimentalist) Hermann Goering.

Although Grand Illusion was a world wide commercial and critical success, it failed to reach Germany, to whose people it was specifically addressed. The film was even banned in neutral Belgium, out of fear of offending the Nazis, by a government that included prime minister and foreign minister Paul-Henri Spaak, the brother of Grand Illusion co-writer Charles Spaak.

7. A Grand Illusion: Great Art is Eternal But if Renoir’s film failed to stop a war, it has served ever since as one of the screen‘s greatest pacifist statements, loved by audiences around the world, including audiences in Germany. The picture — whose negative was lost for years, then found and restored decades ago, and re-released now in a stunning 35mm print (the best I’ve ever seen) — is one of the treasures of the cinema: a brilliant, deeply moving human portrayal of men in conflict and the dream of peace.

Renoir‘s supreme gift, according to his cinematic apostle Francois Truffaut, was his power of instilling life intp his films and in his characters. “He has made the most ’alive’ films in the history of the cinema,” Truffaut said, and he was right. Along with Renoir‘s 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game, about aristocrats and socialites at a  country chateau, and the 1935 The Crime of M. Lange (scripted by Prevert), about working people  and writers in Paris, Grand Illusion is one of his three most thoroughly alive films. (But wait: There’s also Boudu Saved from Drowning, and The Southerner, and The River and The Lower Depths and La Chienne and French CanCan. And…..)

Watch it. Watch it again. If you’re like me and you’ve seen Grand Illusion many, many times, you know all these men and these women very well by now. You know their loves and wounds, and sadly you know their wars, and the horrors and sadness of their wars. Peace, honor, bloodshed, comedy, tragedy, life, death, friendship, all the grand illusions: You know them all. Or you will know them again, when you watch this film and iits marvelous, unforgettable people and characters, and their lives and their dreams….

Are they really illusions? How ironic perhaps that a movie about war, and about soldiers and prisoners-of-war, about men sent on missions of death, about captives trapped and imprisoned, about friends forced to kill each other, about fugitives fleeing for the border with riflemen behind them, should be one of the movies that most powerfully and beautifully celebrates life and freedom.

(In French, German and English, with English subtitles.)  

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon