Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Grand Illusion Remembers the Humanity of the Soldiers Caught Up In War

The older a classic movie is, the larger its shadow looms over pop culture. With more years to leave an impressive, the likes of Citizen Kane have had nearly eighty years to influence the art of cinema to a profound degree. Such an influence can take on the form of blazing new trailers in terms of filmmaking (that's especially applicable to something like Kane) but it also emerges simply in movies and TV shows referencing these pieces of cinema and in the process helping to introduce them to a new generation. Such is the case for Jean Renoir's 1938 motion picture Grand Illusion, which not only left a mark on how people make movies but also has been referenced in everything from The Simpsons to Chicken Run.

This highly influential project concerns the saga of French soldiers held in a prisoner-of-war camp by German soldiers. The two most prominent individuals that we follow throughout the story are Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin). As they stay in this camp, they come to befriend a number of other fellow captives while also coming to terms with how the state of their own lives is now far beyond their control. The actions of French soldiers far away on the front lines and whether they win or lose against German forces are what motivate where Boeldieu, Marechal and their fellow prisoners end up more than their own actions.

No human can live their lives so divorced from control. The time has come for an escape. Attempting to get away from the various camps that they're kept at turn out to be harder than expected, though. One of the best attributes of Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak's screenplay is how the difficulties of the characters don't just vanish when two of these prisoners (Marechal and Marcel Dailo's character Rosenthal) manage to escape into the real world. Freedom from the POW camp does not mean freedom from adversity. In fact, now the terrain they travel on, as well as other hardships like the threat of being found by German forces, hunger and having to put up with one another, provide tension for the proceedings.

There's wall-to-wall turmoil found in Grand Illusion, though it's not so much a bleak project as it is one cognizant of the realities of the world. We all have constant troubles in our daily lives, sometimes in big ways, other times small. The experiences of Boeldieu and company in these POW camps represent the most extreme version of this part of everyday life, one of a number of ways that Renoir and Spaak reinforce the humanity of these captured characters. Though they're forced by their German captors to fall into line and never express a form of individuality, Grand Illusion finds ways for them to reaffirm their individuality, including in a moving sequence depicting French prisoners singing La Marseillaise.

Further emphasizing the humanistic themes of Grand Illusion is perhaps the most poignant sequence of the entire movie which concerns a dying Boeldieu conversing with German Captain Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). In Boeldieu's final moments, he and Rauffenstein share a conversation full of respect for one another as they recognize the larger systems in play that forced them into becoming enemies while Boeldieu makes a note of how Rauffenstein will face plenty of trouble in terms of figuring out his identity once this war, which Rauffenstein uses to define himself, is finished. With such introspective writing like the dialogue exchanges found in this scene, it's no wonder Grand Illusion has managed to have such a remarkable impact on so much pop culture.

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