In May 1910 the funeral of King Edward VII drew together such a parade of European royalty that even the powerful Republican envoys of France and the United States had to suffer the indignity of bringing up the rear of the procession. Resplendent on horseback over 50 emperors, kings, archdukes and princes masked the fact that the Old World nobility were cantering head first into the Great War and oblivion.
These monarchs of the Continental courts were so closely related to Queen Victoria that she was sometimes called the Grandmamma of Europe. War seemed impossible when no less than seven of her direct relations sat on European thrones and three of those were first cousins presiding over the most powerful nations on earth: King George V of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
Re-released in time for its 75th anniversary, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion plays out against this impossibility and the darkening clouds of World War 2. His film is a humanist study of class that refuses to take sides or preach an overbearing sermon. Like the best historical pictures it speaks of then and now with equal authority. It begins when two French pilots are shot down over German trenches early in the Great War. The aristocratic Von Rauffenstein treats them to lunch, every inch the Prussian gentleman: monocle, boots and impeccable manners. “I am honoured to have French guests” he says, pulling their seats out like a Parisian waiter.
The French airmen are from opposite sides of the class divide. Captain De Boieldieu is also an aristocrat, his family no doubt survivors of the guillotine. He knows of Von Rauffenstein from before the war the bond of privilege uniting them just as it did for their monarchs. Even Lieutenant Marechal an engineer of the fledgling proletariat has something in common with one of his German counterparts they both worked in the same French city. The meal is cordial and good-natured and says more of the commonality of man than it does of the difference of nations.
Renoir’s subtle but dazzling trick is to glide over his characters and by doing so teases from them their laughter and sadness, their strength and frailties with the minimum of fuss and effort. De Boieldieu and Marechal are transported to a prisoner of war camp and in turns we see Renoir’s influence over films such as Goodfellas, The Great Escape and Casablanca. De Boieldieu views the camp as another sport to be conquered, “A golf course is for golf. A tennis court is for tennis. A prison camp is for escaping.” Marechal dismisses the prison talent show with a glow of sarcasm; “Theatre is too deep for me. I prefer cycling.”
Marechal strikes up a friendship with another captured French officer Rosenthal. Rosenthal is an incredibly wealthy Jewish banker, a self-made man who everyone wants to eat with as he has the best food parcels, better than the guards even. Marechal and Rosenthal have a genuine affection for one another based on their backgrounds whereas Marechal has only a grudging respect for De Boieldieu. This friendship will lead to a heroic (or possibly pointless) sacrifice by De Boiedieu.
Later the threesome is moved to an escape proof prison commanded by the now crippled Von Rauffenstein whose white gloves now cover horrific burns. Von Rauffenstein still clings onto the notion of chivalry and comradeship of fellow officers and gentlemen. He tells De Boiedieu that he runs the fortress to French regulations so as not to be accused of “German Barbarism.” Again they share a memory-this time of a girl called Fifi in Maxim’s.
However De Boieldieu is a man who knows his class’s time is at an end. Renoir gives him exquisite dialogue, funny and telling–“Syphilis used to be our privilege but we’ve lost it. Like so many others everything is mainstream. Cancer and gout aren’t working class diseases, but they will be, believe me.” But his friendly conversations with Von Rauffenstein are the most telling of all. As the pair drink and smoke like an exact mirror image of one another they discuss the downfall of the ruling class. De Boieldieu knows the writing is on the wall, “Neither you nor I can stop the march of time,” but clearly Von Rauffenstein would love to if he could.
Marechal and Rosenthal eventually escape aided by De Boieldieu’s distraction. As he later explains to Von Rauffenstein, “ For a commoner dying in war is a tragedy but for you and me…it’s a good way out.” Looking at his damaged body Von Rauffenstein replies, “I missed my opportunity.” Their passing mirrors the end of the rule of Kings in Europe and the dawn of the rule of the Dictators.
Renoir juxtaposes the misplaced nobility of De Boieldieu and Von Rauffenstein with the petty squabbling of Marechal and Rosenthal as they freeze and starve in the German elements. Is this what will replace the ruling class? Yet the despair we feel is fleeting as a German war widow takes in the pair. Her husband was killed at Verdun and her brothers killed at, “Liege, Charleroi and Tannenberg. They were our greatest victories.” For a while the pair live a happy life with the widow and her daughter before leaving for the Swiss border.
La Grande Illusion is rightly hailed as a masterpiece. But it is one that has a lightness of touch, not a hammer tone of force. Renoir subtly dismantles longstanding illusions to erect new ones in their place and depending on your mood you can see through them or be mesmerised by them. Either way you will not be disappointed by one of the true cinematic geniuses.