Thursday, 22 June 2017

On Jean Renoir's "La Grande Illusion" (1937)

The French director Jean Renoir (1894-1979)'s most celebrated film, La Grande Illusion (1937), is a humanistic masterpiece of profound anti-war sentiments. A war film which - unlike its counterpart All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) - does not show a single frame of conflict or battle and does not have a single scene set on the trenches, La Grande Illusion focuses instead on a group of French officers who have been taken prisoner by German forces during the First World War, on the way they are treated differently to ordinary prisoners because of their rank, and specifically on class relationships, both between the French officers and between the French and the Germans they encounter. It's a deeply realistic film in many ways - not just based on Renoir's own wartime experiences, but lead character Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is even wearing Renoir's old aviation jacket throughout the film - but its director was not averse to stylized touches, saying in his autobiography that he was "incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairy-tale". In the context of the "low dishonest decade" of which Auden wrote, the 1930s, Renoir's film is also a way of examining relationships between European countries in the light of the rise of fascism in Germany (post-1933) and sabre-rattling between the various powers. Any pusillanimous Brexiteers sitting down to begin negotiations would do well to watch such a film and think of what can be learned from it in a modern context, though I'm sure the fact that it's in French would put them off...