Empathy Across Dividing Lines
Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, the Vatican film list honoree Grand Illusion is a nostalgic reminder for our divisive times of all we stand to lose if we lose sight of what we have in common.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Jean Renoir is best known for writing and directing a pair of towering masterpieces made two years apart, Grand Illusion (1937) and Rules of the Game (1939). Both films defy lazy characterization; neither has an obvious protagonist or clear central conflict, and both are more concerned with character, behavior and social norms than conventional plotting or abstract ideas.
Yet as meandering and startling as they are, there is nothing impenetrable or mystifying about them. Renoir gives us an insider perspective into strange situations, showing us sides of human nature that we might not have guessed, but which are entirely persuasive and recognizable.
Grand Illusion is ostensibly but not exactly a war film; Rules of the Game is seemingly but not quite a comedy of manners. In a way, each is the antithesis of its apparent genre; Rules of the Game has been called a tragedy of manners — and, while many war films are anti-war in their ideology, Grand Illusion could be called an anti-war film in content and form. Ironically, where Renoir’s comedy of manners is savage, bitter and brutal, his war film is humane, gracious and hopeful, as well as melancholy. Both titles are opaque enough to fit either film equally well.
What happened between the two films was the growing inevitability of World War II. In 1937, when there was still some hope that Europe might back away from the brink of an even more destructive conflict, Renoir made a compassionate film about the first World War — or, rather, about the men who fought in it, and the European world in which they fought, and all the things that united and divided them: things that seldom aligned with the borders between countries. In 1939, with war looming, Renoir made an angry bedroom farce about folly, duplicity, cupidity and unhappiness.
The filmmaker was the son of the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and the tableaux of Rules, from couples wooing to social gatherings to the hunting party, are not far removed from the idylls of the elder Renoir’s paintings. But Rules exposed the sordid underbelly of this world; Grand Illusion, despite its wartime setting, is spiritually closer to his father’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.
Asked what he was trying to do in Rules, Renoir reportedly said, “I don’t care.” With Grand Illusion, it may not be much easier to say what he’s trying to accomplish, but there is no doubt that he cares.
The opening act sets the tone. A pair of French officers, Captain de Boeldieu (Monsieur Vincent’s Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), are shot down and captured during a reconnaissance mission. (The combat and capture sequences take place offscreen; there is no onscreen combat in the film.)
Their captor, the man who shot them down, is an aristocrat, an officer and a German — very much in that order. As Captain von Rauffenstein, Erich von Stroheim cuts a figure as imposing as a Baroque portrait, with his elaborate dress uniform, monocle and stiff bearing (even before donning a back brace for the second half of the film).
Von Rauffenstein is a man of the world: a man who speaks both French and English as well as German, and relishes his time in Paris. (Language is a marker of class and education as well as nationality.) His new prisoners — being officers — are cordially invited to dine with his men; von Rauffenstein particularly bonds with de Boeldieu, a fellow aristocrat who will eventually become something like a friend. Another German thoughtfully cuts Maréchal’s food to permit him to eat despite his injured hand. Why, these enemies even have mutual acquaintances and other common ties! It’s a small world.
Well, it was all western Europe; how big a world could it be? Moreover, Germany, France, England and the other great powers of western Europe were all Christian — and it had been centuries since Catholic and Protestant powers waged religious wars in Europe, while the rise of western Europe’s first post-Christian state, the Third Reich, was decades away. Of course the entry of post-revolutionary Russia and the Ottoman empire (not to mention Japan) complicated things, but fundamentally the Great War wasn’t a war of mutually antithetical systems of thought or belief.
Still, other, less formidable dividing lines crisscross the ensemble cast: noble and common, rich and working-class, educated and unlettered, Christian and Jewish. De Boeldieu and Maréchal are taken to an officers’ camp where they are taken into the confidence of fellow prisoners working on an escape tunnel. Among these are Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), whose Jewishness is offset by his generosity with the care packages he receives from his wealthy family, and the somewhat Chaplinesque barracks clown Cartier (Julien Carette), a former vaudeville trouper.
Renoir never either forgets the war nor allows it to take center stage. The men follow news from the front lines about strategic locations captured or recaptured, but the film is more interested in the raucous vaudeville show staged by the prisoners. Such shenanigans may seem more at home in The Rules of the Game, yet, watching Grand Illusion, I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’s observation in his essay “Learning in Wartime” that, in his experience in the Great War, “the nearer you got to the front line the less everyone spoke and thought of the allied cause and the progress of the campaign.”
This, Lewis says, is human nature: Men “propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.” And, Renoir adds, stage bawdy song-and-dance numbers in POW camps.
There is futility and despair along with generosity and hope. The tunnel the prisoners are digging caves in at one point, nearly killing Cartier — and then, before the tunnel is completed, the prisoners are all transferred to new camps, and there is no opportunity to alert the new inmates of the work that has been done.
The new camp to which de Boeldieu, Maréchal, and Rosenthal are transferred — overseen by von Rauffenstein — is reputedly escape-proof, but men do escape, though at a cost that is bitterly felt, particularly by von Rauffenstein. (Earlier von Rauffenstein offered a prayer for fallen enemies; here he summons a priest to give last rites to a man he was reluctantly forced to shoot.)
This scene, arguably the dramatic climax, encapsulates the rigorous humanism that the film as a whole practices rather than preaching. Von Rauffenstein may be deluded by his snobbery and belief in class loyalty above all else; in another film he could easily be a Colonel Klink-like absurdity. Here he is self-aware enough to understand, with de Boeldieu, that their age is coming to an end, and this gives him a tragic dignity.
A more conventional film might have ended there. Renoir goes on to an almost idyllic fourth act, in which Maréchal and Rosenthal, seeking to escape Germany into Switzerland, are forced to take refuge with a widowed German farm wife named Elsa (Dita Parlo).
There’s an ugly moment early on when Maréchal turns on Rosenthal with an antisemitic slur — but when he goes back to help him, we may suspect something more at work than the bonds of fellow POW escapees. We can be sure when Rosenthal joins in trimming Elsa’s Christmas tree and preparing the crèche to surprise her young daughter on Christmas Eve, even lightheartedly claiming the infant Jesus as a distant relation. And while the romance between lonely Elsa and Maréchal is almost inevitable, it is also sincere, as Maréchal’s genuine conflict after they are separated attests.
This fourth act offers the alternative to the futility of the rest of the film: scenes of domesticity, honest work, simple human solidarity and love across social lines in defiance of wartime allegiances. The harmony and universal feeling of this sequence humorously extends even between species, as Maréchal expansively bonds with Elsa’s milk cow: Why can’t a poor French soldier and a poor German cow be pals?
The hopeful final shot depicts two tiny figures in a vast, unspoiled landscape: figures who will live to see another day simply because at a critical moment they were deemed to be on the right side of an imaginary line to which the natural world around them is supremely indifferent. This imaginary line exists in the same made-up world as the rules separating nobility from commoners, or Allies from Central Powers.
The lines dividing people from one another have shifted since those days, but our world, alas, remains as unhappily divided as ever. Watching Grand Illusion, we’re reminded how essential our capacity for empathy is, how precious and fragile happiness is wherever it is found, and how grateful we should be if we are able to live out our lives in comparative peace and freedom.
Brief gunplay; stressful situations; some ribald humor. Subtitles. Teens and up.