Filtering the experience of watching this movie through all my other personal pop culture experiences (as I am wont to do), I could make a fairly strong case for this being a watershed moment in my own attempts at cinematic self-improvement. I’ve talked before about the vast interlinking of entertainment and how getting to know the bedrock canon is, if nothing else, helpful in allowing you to process and understand when newer works reference older ones. But of course, I’m late to the game, both in terms of when I was born and in terms of how long it took me to move beyond paying attention exclusively to the shiny and/or new. And as a result I do a lot of things backwards. Still, there’s a great deal of satisfaction in spotting the connections no matter which direction you’re going, and at this point I’ve (finally!) gotten enough classic film history under my belt to appreciate how influential La Grande Illusion is. It’s not the first Renoir film I’ve seen, since I watched La Règle du jeu this summer, and it’s not my first film featuring Erich von Stroheim, because that was Sunset Boulevard. Max von Mayerling is very different from Major von Rauffenstein, in both the sense that they are separate characters in separate fictional stories and the circumstances that define them in each, but they have a lot in common, and if you look at it just right you can see the one evolving (or perhaps devolving) from the other, which is fundamentally marvelous (as if I needed another reason to lavish praise on Sunset Boulevard).
It’s generally acknowledged as a given that the techniques for digging a tunnel out of a POW camp in The Great Escape were lifted from La Grande Illusion, and that the scene in Casablanca (which the Blog Club hasn’t covered yet, but I’ve seen repeatedly, oh just you wait) where Laszlo leads a stirring, spontaneous rendition of La Marseilles much to the Germans’ consternation is an homage to a similar scene in Renoir’s film. And I get all of that! (I also get that the third act of La Grande Illusion, with the French soldier Maréchal falling in love with the German widow Elsa, is ur-text for pretty much every modern romance-with-wartime-backdrop, ever.) I don’t know that I’d go so far as to classify my filmic knowledge as master-level just yet, but I do feel like I’ve graduated from beginner to somewhere in the intermediate-to-advanced range, where if you throw a dart at a big old board of Famous Movie Stuff, the odds are better than 50/50 I’ll have firsthand knowledge of whatever it hits.
As to the work of art itself, it is indeed a keeper. Its strengths lie more in its story and its performances, and the larger ideas enmeshed in both, than in any particularly stylized techniques of film-making. There are a few stand-out moments in that last category, of course; I particularly liked the long take in which one of the POWs rehearsing for a show emerges dressed as a woman, and all the ambient background noise drops away to silence and the camera slowly pans around to show how the attention of every soldier is on the cross-dresser, to create a really powerful moment out of the contrast. But, again, all of that is in service to major themes like the examination of what war does to young men, for example depriving them of female companionship of any kind for so long that a smooth-faced junior officer in drag is enough to stun them into gape-mouthed gargoyles.
For most of the running time of La Grande Illusion, there’s no clear indication as to what, exactly, this big, definitive eponymous mirage is supposed to be. Eventually, it’s referenced directly in the dialogue as the erroneous belief that any war could be the war to end all wars, or really that any war changes anything. But up to that point, there are numerous candidates for grandest illusion; in point of fact, right before the dialogue in question the same two French characters are trying to make it from Germany to Switzerland and one wonders how they can tell where the border is, while the other points out that dividing lines between countries only exist on paper maps, another illusion. Earlier, the film might have been speaking about illusory separation between the aristocracy and the working class, or about the veneer of civility between officers of enemy armies, or about the blurry distinction between the prisoners in a camp and the soldiers who have been assigned to guard them, neither of whom are truly free to do as they please, or about how a battle can be considered a victory for any cause when it claims so many lives on both sides. It all but begs the question if anything in life is anything but self-deluding lies we tell ourselves to feel better.
I don’t really think that Renoir believed that everything in life is a sham. La Grande Illusion is a deeply humanist film which manages to skirt the paradoxical issues (which I love to harp on, I know, I know) of how to make an anti-war film by essentially avoiding depiction of the battlefields altogether. No one is ever shown leading a charge or defending a position, as all the action takes place amongst those who have been sidelined or left behind. The most direct acknowledgment of military action comes in the form of news arriving in the prison camp that the French have retaken Fort Douaumont, followed a scene or so later by newer news that the Germans have taken the position back again. It’s a pointed observation, made at an ironic narrative remove, on the futility of hostilities. But on the other hand, the human contacts and connections demonstrated throughout the film in every setting are never judged as futile. Nor are they illusions; they may be the only truly real things in this world.