La Grande Illusion

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

11 November

First World War ends, 1914

On this day in 1914, hostilities officially ceased on the Western Front (which ran through Belgium, north-eastern France and Alsace-Lorraine – then German, now French), effective 11am. Though the First World War is often described as a victory of the allied powers, officially the result was a draw – the fighting between all concerned was simply called off. Though of course Germany had been beaten and in the Peace of Versailles, the Treaty arranged shortly afterwards, the looseness of this technical distinction became clear – Germany lost territory, its navy, most of its army and was forced to pay reparations to the victorious parties. This onerous burden – officially Germany did not lose the war – led to the “stab in the back” myth in Germany, which Hitler would later exploit to great effect. But back to the Front on 11 November, where fighting carried on until 11am, with some units continuing to fire even after 11am rather than have to haul ammunition back to base. The last man to die, officially, was Henry Gunther, an American from Baltimore, who died one minute before 11am, while charging towards German troops, who were astonished to see him so close to the official cessation of hostilities. His grandparents were German, ironically.

La Grande Illusion (1937, dir: Jean Renoir)

Make sure you see a recent restoration of this great war film by Jean Renoir. Because it’s clear from even the first crude intertitle on the one I saw (which was on the Studio Canal label) that it’s a brilliant one – so crisp, such control of the tones – the 2011 restoration outdoing the already pretty good 1999 one, particularly when it comes to contrast. The film also is brilliant, a masterpiece of economical storytelling about French pilots being captured by the Germans in the First World War and then treated to a spiffing dinner before being sent off to a PoW camp. And what a picture it paints of the officer class, as exemplified by Erich Von Stroheim on the German side, Pierre Fresnay for the French – men who had a pan-European vision, even though they were at war, who could communicate with each other in several languages, were relaxed in each other’s company, had friends in common, in fact. As to the plot, it’s a tunnelling/escape movie, the prototype for all the Great Escape (hey, great title for a movie) films that have come since. The fact that this is the first, and that it’s so good, might explain why other tunnelling/escape movies are good too – they learned the lessons Renoir taught them. Not, for example, to portray the Germans as murderous swine. Not to fall too easily into the stereotype trap – almost everyone in this film is a well rounded individual with hopes and fears. We sympathise even with the rich guy who is worth a billion dollars outside, but inside is just one of the boys. There’s even a black character here, just for a second or too, but definitely there, his skin colour unremarked upon. The Big Illusion of the title? I’m not sure. It’s either the belief that war is useful or moral, or it’s rule by the aristocratic class, on the point of being swept away by the arrival of the era of the working man, typified by the film’s hero Jean Gabin, and the era of money, exemplified by the new money banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) who now owns the chateau that Fresnay’s character’s family once occupied. Another advantage to seeing the restoration I saw is to see a recording of Renoir introducing the film on its re-release in the early 1960s. What a forthright, eloquent, intelligent and humane man he is.

Why Watch?

  • A war film about the First World War made when the Second War was looking increasingly likely
  • Renoir’s fabulously fluid camera
  • Erich Von Stroheim in monocle and neckbrace – just as he should be
  • A regular on “greatest ever” lists

La Grande Illusion – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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