Grand Expectations: First Exposure to Renoir's "Grand Illusion"

The first time I ever heard of Jean Renoir I was with my friend John, who was fresh out of Graduate School, sitting in Providence’s Avon cinema to see Renoir (2012), a film about Jean’s father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, which sees (among other things) Jean coming home from the war and falling in love with one of his father’s models. Since then I’ve only maintained an acquaintance with Mr. Renoir and still have yet to see any of his films (well, until now). I have, however, witnessed the breathe of his influence upon directors I admire, such as Orson Wells, Satyajit Ray and Errol Morris. What’s more, La Grande Illusion and The Rules of the Game are frequently referenced on great film polls from magazines such as Sight & Sound and websites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. With such acclaim, I was excited to finally get around to watching one of his films, particular his “explicit anti-war film.”

In doing research for La Grande Illusion I was surprised to find varying opinions on its cultural perception, particularly getting some lackluster reviews when it was first released in the U.S. In a 1938 piece for the New York Times, Frank Nugent gives a lukewarm review in which he seems more impressed with the films turnout rather than the actual film, calling it “a strange and interesting film” and saying that for “a war film it is astonishingly lacking in hullabaloo.” While not intently negative, Nugent isn’t overwhelmingly positive (such as the film’s later acclaim). Furthermore, the most positive thing Nugent says is toward the actors, “Erich von Stroheim's appearance as von Rauffenstein reminds us again of Hollywood's folly in permitting so fine an actor to remain idle and unwanted.” Nugent’s word choice in this review actually mirrors how he describes Grande Illusion, “Time after time [Renoir] permits his drama to inch up to the brink of melodrama: one waits for the explosion and the tumult. Time after time he resists the temptation and lets the picture go its calmer course.”

In another article written in 2016 for Sight & Sound, Ginette Vincendeau discusses Grand Illusions’ wavering notability within the cinema canon since its release, stating that “ the aftermath of World War II and the revelations of the Holocaust, three areas in particular appeared problematic: the film’s pacifism; its view of war as steeped in chivalry, with sympathetic portrayals of ‘good Germans’; and the representation of Rosenthal, which was now read as having anti-Semitic resonances.” This certainly gave me pause and made me consider the “casual racism” of yore, how cultural sensitivity wasn’t as developed as it is in modern age. For example, in his New York Times review Nugent describes the Rosenthal character as only “a wealthy Jew,” and doesn’t really describe him further. Granted, Nugent doesn’t delve into much at all but the casualness of calling Rosenthal “just another Jewish character” is off-putting to my modern sensibilities. Reading this made me consider Grand Illusions’ initial acclaim as, to a degree, mere pandering to a wider audience through low brow humor and stereotypes. While Vincendeau does mention that the directly anti-Semitic remarks which take place within the film could be seen as Renior’s critique of Antisemitism itself, such reasoning has been applied to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and I can’t say I’m convinced of it in either case. If one wants to critique racism, I feel sarcasm is (usually) a horrible way to approach it as it could become lost in translation and interpreted as sincere. Holding the notion that Grand Illusion could approache its subject with this regard, I began to mentally tread more cautiously into this film.

However, upon watching the film I was surprised by the amount of humorous absurdity present. In one scene, as Boeldieu and Maréchal sit down to have dinner with the German soldiers, the same ones who had shot them down, a German soldier brings in a wreath for the dead French pilots, at which point the German Captain Rauffenstein stands up and apologies for the “coincidence.” Another scene sees the characters digging a tunnel in order to escape the prisoner camp only to discover that a prisoner was shot attempting to escape in the same location the tunnel was suppose to end. Other scenes are more subtle, such as Boeldieu wearing a fur coat in a POW camp, POW’s having a snowball fight in the prison yard, the main characters eating wine, cheese and fish in prison (eating better than the German soldiers). Such subtle humor echoes that of the French visual-comedian Jacques Tati, which is great but very unusual, and unexpected, for an anti-war film, as Grand Illusion as often been described. What’s more, this absurdity is so abundant that it became overwhelming and seemingly contrived, so much so that I became annoyed and found myself wishing for more grit and soberness. Perhaps I’ve been trained to expect war films (of any kind) should contain some grounding and sincerity, a la the Kubrick model (Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket). And while Kubrick did have humor in his war films, such as the use of pop music in Full Metal Jacket or the dark humor of Dr. Strangelove, he always balanced the jokes with real weight and consequences. In Grand Illusion, Renoir appears to make no effort to keep his feet in the muck; we see no battlefields, no wounds other than Maréchal’s arm brace, and the only on-screen death is Boeldieu which is highly dramatized. For Renoir, as his title suggests, it’s a grand illusion, a farce, an ideal of what war should be or, rather, how nations idealize wars as patriotic and heroic acts. It’s in this warped thinking that Renoir finds the absurd and mocks it, and I enjoy the film for this aspect, however, my modern mindset makes it impossible to ignore that these characters are having too grand of a time in a prisoner of war camp. At points I understood why critics found the film’s pacifism an issue, because the German’s weren’t chivalrous to their POWs nor was World War I ever this clean and friendly, yet the films persists in this portrayal without ever presenting the true horrors of war in any sincere manner. While not its intention, this lacking/ignoring of actual prisoner camps conditions causes the film to be interpreted as a revisionist and almost sympathetic to the Germans.

This being said, I found the portrayal of Rosenthal to not be as overtly anti-Semitic as I presumed from my research, although I find the fact of him being Jewish to be “tacked-on” at best and I thought it could’ve been left out entirely. Nothing is gained from him being Jewish, if anything the most important aspect of his character is that he’s rich and gets epic parcels, otherwise his Jewishness is merely happenstance and doesn’t play a very large role. What’s more, there’s only two points where Rosenthal’s ethnicity plays any significance, and it’s small: when he’s lamenting how Jehovah made Jews “stingy” and Maréchal says “To hell with Jehovah, you’ve been a real pal,” and when Maréchal and Rosenthal argue after escaping and Maréchal says he could “never stomach Jews.” Both of these scenes add nothing to the overall message of the film and add no depth to the character of either Rosenthal nor Maréchal. In fact, in the former scene, Rosenthal could just as easily lamented how Jehovah (or God or Allah) made bankers stingy to the same effect. It might be true that Renoir wanted to be make fun of Antisemitism but his attempts come off contrived. Granted, this is similarly as contrived as everything else in Grand Illusion but its deficiency in moving the plot forward or developing character relationships leaves one to question why he bothered mentioning Rosenthal’s ethnicity at all.

With all its flaws, in the end I did enjoy Grand Illusion. While far from my favorite film it was nice to finally get around to watching a cinema classic that has alluded me for so long. It does leave me wanting to explore more of Renoir’s catalog with the hope that he’s less sarcastic in his other works and, from those pieces, I’ll be able to paint a better portrait of him.