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“Grand Illusion”: Why and How it Matters [by Bruce Kawin]

Grand Illusion 1Ed note: The last time I taught a graduate literature seminar, only two of fifteen students had seen Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, one of the most celebrated of all American movies. To help remedy this unfortunate situation, I am hoping to run columns on the blog about some of the greatest old movies that college students owe it to themselves to see. I asked Bruce Kawin, longtime professor of English and film studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder, to write about Grand Illusion, the great movie set in a World War I prisoner-of-war camp. The stars include Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, and Erich von Stroheim. Grand Illusion establishes the conventions – such as the attempted escapes, the complicated relation of captor to captive, the home-spun varsity show put on by the prisoners -- that animate many subsequent POW movies, from Stalag 17 to The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape. -- DL

See It for the Way It Matters

In the title of Jean Renoir’s 1937 movie Grand Illusion (La Grande illusion), “grande” can mean “great” or “big.”  The illusion is huge and has aspects of nobility, the old ways, the high walls that kept commoners out, the train that ran on the rails of history and tradition, the Rolls that rolled over you. People kill each other over the illusion, set up systems as large as governments by it, cover the ground with it.  The illusion is great or grand in that it involves social and economic classes, national boundaries and identities, control and surveillance -- the whole gamut of experience.  

Grand Illusion 3But whether it’s big like a fence or great like a tower, and whether or not it’s noble, what is it?  What illusion is so comprehensive that individuals and countries can (or must) live by it?  In Renoir’s movie, we encounter multiple mirages: the illusion of class, the illusion that war is grand, the illusion that the earth is divided into political units. That war is of value. That an international nobility has not vanished along with its values and value.  Class, war, and the artificial divisions that estrange us to the point of murder:  these are the falsehoods we elevate into principles and masks. 

Once it has established all this, Grand Illusion is about removing those masks.  Circumstances force or allow the characters to unmask, to act the way they finally are. The characters are divided by World War I, for they fight on opposing sides, but it is also the war that brings them together. Most of the action takes place in German prison camps.  The soldiers, the guards, and the commanding officers are divided by language, and they speak in many languages.  They are divided by class, so that the "high" plot concerns two officers from the upper classes, one French (Pierre Fresnay) and one German (Erich von Stroheim as the prison commander), while the "low" plot concerns a working-class Catholic (Jean Gabin) and a rich Jew (Marcel Dalio), who also are officers but of lower rank. 

Grande Illusion 2The two higher-ranking officers see each other as equals and come from much the same social place. The major characters cross these dividers, reach across them to each other, proving as deep as real people and far more complicated than the single-motivation figures often found in run-of-the-mill movies.  As a viewer, you can’t take anything for granted in this picture.  The aristocratic opponents become friends—until the ancient code that unites them butts against the prisoner’s code of working together to escape. When the highborn French officer follows the code of the soldier, the prison commander, following the code of the officer, is forced to shoot him—a defining example of tragedy. 

And when the fugitive soldiers, the working-class Catholic and the Jew with a rich family, begin to fight on the road, they become more nearly complete as individuals and as members of social groups, as inseparable and yet as different as the two noble officers.  When the escapees meet a German mother and her daughter, who house them for a time, Protestants join the Catholic and the Jew.  And a mature woman (Dita Parlo) joins the tale.  A genuinely moving international love story ensues.

Grand Illusion 4This is a movie that treats important issues with intelligence, honesty, range, and care.  It was one of the films that convinced many people that movies could be serious, significant, and artistic—with as much to say, to reveal, as some books or paintings. And it did all this by being a movie:  the camera that moves down the tables and groups, the soundtrack that crashes together “foreign” languages, the design of the dark stone prison and the single geranium, and most definitively the final scene’s image of a snow-covered mountain on which no political borderline can be seen, but which the two escaping soldiers cross into freedom—crossing a line that is an illusion.  The line is there in the political sense, a reality, but it is also an abstraction, a line that to all appearances isn’t there.  The camera sees the snow.

-- Bruce Kawin

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