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” Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion throws many people for a loop the first time they see it. Its reputation as one of the great works of cinema leads them to expect an eye-popper like Citizen Kane, or a work such as The Bicycle Thief that distills to perfect transparency some aspect of human experience. Instead they find an apparently formless drama performed in a melange of acting styles, a supremely melancholy film that’s crowned by a note of tentative affirmation, a work that is both a plea for ecumenical brotherhood and a surprisingly felt lament for the passing of the aristocracy. The “grand illusion” itself is never spelled out, and even the film’s reputation as an “anti-war classic” is misleading – it doesn’t have a didactic bone in its body. ” ( Tom Block )

" Boeldieu can see the historical transition as a joke at his own expense, but Rauffenstein is himself a prisoner to the old forms and divisions. Trapped inside the steel plating that binds up his war wounds, he can’t look on the inheritors of his world with Boeldieu’s equanimity. He pronounces their names – "a Rosenthal, a Marechal" – as one might say "a louse, a vermin," and calls them the "happy gifts of the French Revolution." It is Boeldieu’s embrace of historical inevitability that sets the final chain of events in motion"

You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
Tried to run
Tried to hide
Break on through to the other side
Break on through to the other side
Break on through to the other side, yeah

We chased our pleasures here
Dug our treasures there
But can you still recall
The time we cried
Break on through to the other side
Break on through to the other side…

" Renoir displays their eighteen months of captivity - and several escapes! - with delicate humor and admirable humanity. Renoir shows that social divisions and prejudices separate people more than nationality and language. Declared "Cinema Enemy Number One" by nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Grand Illusion is now considered one of the best films of all time."

It maybe one of the ten greatest movies of all time.Its a film with an elusive and intangible message. An anti-war film in a production that is not essentially about war. Its a film about coming and going, exploring and discovery, social mores and taboo, love and hate, and being stuck in the middle looking for a third way. More than seventy years after it was made, Grand Illusion remains one of cinema’s great achievements, as it sits at an ambiguous and  potent intersection between the dramatic and the poetic.  Like Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” except the contexts keep switching and blowing hither and dither in the wind. its about how can people break out of their own prison, and once they have left, “hit the beach” to use Normandy invasion terminology,and to decide what do they do next?

"He can be seen unlimbering himself throughout the film: by degrees he stops pulling rank (and attitude) on Marechal and Rosenthal, and by the end he is defending them to Rauffenstein when he knows what heresy that represents to the German. So when it comes time for Marechal and Rosenthal to escape from the prison fortress, it is Boeldieu who distracts the Germans while his comrades carry out their plan. Boldieu’s seeming madness forces the hand of the uncomprehending Rauffenstein, and what results is tantamount to a double suicide. Rauffenstein knows that he has just murdered the best part of himself, and in one of cinema’s most shattering moments, the crippled German moves to the frail geranium that he’s nurtured in his quarters and liberates it – his last connection to humanity, to himself – from its stem. "

In the final frames of Grand Illusion, Maréchal and Rosenthal, their long journey almost at an end, look anxiously across a broad, snow-covered field:
Maréchal: Are you sure, at least, that that’s Switzerland over there?
Rosenthal: Absolutely sure.
Maréchal: It’s just that German snow and Swiss snow look pretty much the same!
Rosenthal: Don’t worry, there’s a genuine man-made frontier right there, even though nature doesn’t give a damn.
Maréchal: I don’t give a damn either…And when the war’s over, I’ll come and get Elsa.
The Swiss frontier is the last of the boundaries that Renoir’s characters must negotiate in the course of the film—boundaries between captivity and freedom, aristocrat and commoner, Gentile and Jew, German and Frenchman, prisoner and guard. Even the most powerful boundary of all, the one between men and women, is briefly tested and transgressed by the British officers who appear in drag during the theatricals that stand at the heart of the film. As Renoir suggests, all these boundaries too often distract us from the common humanity that is as undivided as the snowy fields joining Germany and Switzerland.

"Superficially the movie is something of a shaggy-dog tale: characters disappear and reappear with a minimal amount of explanation, and elaborately planned events – a camp show, an escape – are abandoned or aborted at the last moment. But as the movie goes on its connections keep multiplying, deepening, and eventually the seemingly haphazard events evolve into a somber and tightly-knit meditation on all the manmade barriers – class, nationality, language, religion – that separate people from each other. "

I found an island in your arms
Country in your eyes
Arms that chain
Eyes that lied
Break on through to the other side
Break on through to the other side
Break on through, oww!
Oh, yeah!

"There, along with Timothy Leary, members of the Canadian Radha Krishna Temple, and a roomful of others, John recorded this song. It was the height of the Vietnam war, and this song became an anthem of the peace movement that summer. It has lived on in its anthemic quality since then during peace movements all over the world. Everybody's talking about Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism / All we are saying is give peace a chance"

In its subtle and nuanced way, deep under the calm waters, is Renoir’s persistent reiteration of the recurrent idea that there can be no stable equilibrium between optimism and pessimism but only an uneasy oscillation between the two; they seem destined to be mutually exclusive. It appears that optimistic humanism is seen, portrayed, as strong in its stress on the aspirations of man but weak in its understanding of his aberrations. Accordingly, it lacks a base for the fulfillment of the former and its solutions to the latter are deficient; thus its ultimate optimism is eternally romantic.

Pessimistic humanism, on the other hand, insists on the absurdity of man’s aspirations and speaks to the heart of his aberrations, but the price of its realism is the constant pull toward despair. This clear contrast throws further light on the crisis of Renoir’s film in the late 1930′s and today; we move from crisis to crisis without the profound and necessary spring cleaning. …

In 1929 Freud remarked on this in Civilization and Its Discontents: “Man has, as it were, become a prosthetic god. . . . Future ages . . . will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But . . . present day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.”

The film is also held together by a number of motifs that are constantly repeated with different emotional tones and inflections, much like the themes in a symphony. The plot of La Grande Illusion unfolds in a series of beautifully composed episodes, arranged like the scenes of a stage play. Sometimes the transition from one to another is made with a jump cut, such as the arrival of the guard to transport Maréchal and de Boeldieu into captivity; in many cases, there is simply a brief fade out. The scenes are united by the theme of escape, which Renoir visually expresses with a constant interplay of motion and confinement, restlessness and restraint. In almost every scene the characters are on the move, arriving and departing, walking around their room or across the parade ground, and—in the memorable train sequence—being shipped from one prison camp to another. But their movement is always abridged, by a closing door, a wire fence, an armed guard. All this changes when Maréchal and Rosenthal are able to break out of their fortress prison: suddenly, the walls that contained the prisoners’ community are gone, replaced by an open landscape that is disconcertingly spacious and unbounded.

A second feature is the irreversibility of the exposure of humanism. It would be comforting to regard the present pessimism as a cycle, or swing of the pendulum, but there are various reasons why we cannot. For one thing there are new factors which prevent a reversal. Here we come to the difference between Oswald Spengler and Max Weber. Spengler thought the decline of the West was essentially what had happened before. Weber held that what was occurring had never happened before. It was different because, although there were similar symptoms, the “disenchantment of the world” by technology was new. So the situation was irreversible.

…Simultaneously the evolutionary theory appeared to demolish Christianity and provide a scientific basis for the philosophy of progress already widely held. Technically, Darwin was not the originator of the idea of evolution but rather the first to give the theory a detailed scientific basis.The cultural flow at the end of the nineteenth century became a series of whirlpools with many strange currents and cross-currents. From one side of the spectrum of religious thinking came Higher Criticism and liberal theology; from the other side came an extremely reactionary entrenchment within the church, seen in such absurd dogmas such as papal infallibility in 1870. As a result, optimistic humanism gained its strength from the confidence that the entire field of human development was now possible within the humanist frame.

Julian Huxley had the hubris t claim that all problems could be solved by humanism and that the whole range of human living could be included within its scope. He predicted that philosophical problems like mind versus matter, social problems like the clash of the two cultures and even international problems such as war would soon be solved…

"Grand Illusion is a cornucopia of great acting. Von Stroheim, a fabled director in his own right, gives a performance worthy of Renoir’s complex conception of Rauffenstein. The fineness with which he entertains the prisoners at his table makes clear the civilized values that Renoir found admirable in the elite, yet his fatal lack of resilience is expressed in the rigidity with which he throws down a shot of cognac. "

Made the scene
Week to week
Day to day
Hour to hour
The gate is straight
Deep and wide
Break on through to the other side
Break on through to the other side
Break on through
Break on through …. ( The Doors. Break on Through )

The film is set among prisoners of war sometime between 1914 and 1918 (the chronology is purposely vague since we are not told how much “real” time elapses between the protagonist’s capture and his final escape) and it is usually viewed for its insights on the First World War. But it tells us much more about the late 1930s, when it was made and first distributed. Like Renoir’s other two great films from this period, La Marseillaise (1938) and The Rules of the Game (1939), La Grande Illusion reflects Europeans’ complex hopes and fears during the era of the Popular Front, appeasement, and the rising threat of Nazism.

" The mechanic Marechal (Jean Gabin), the Jewish couturier Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), and the other common soldiers have more earthly concerns, the concerns of regular human beings: home and food and sex. Culture as Boeldieu and Rauffenstein know it isn’t part of their world. When the Czarina sends the POWs a crate full of books, the soldiers, enraged at not finding vodka in the shipment, begin rioting and set the books on fire. The one common soldier who has an education – he spends his time in captivity translating Pindar – is ostracized by his fellow prisoners. Even Rauffenstein, rendered incapable by his heritage of recognizing any bond with such a specimen, gives the man a withering look and murmurs, "Poor Pindar."

In order for the plot to work, the characters must be recognizable types—the ordinary Frenchman, the Prussian officer, the aloof aristocrat, and the cosmopolitan Jew—but the actors inhabit these roles with such confidence and grace that we never doubt their authentic individuality. Even the minor actors, some of whom appear on screen for only a moment, radiate an essential, compelling humanity that is both a source of the film’s greatness and a key to its meaning.

…In 1832 Hemrich Heine had said, “Do you hear the little bell tinkle? Kneel down — one brings the sacraments for a dying God.” Nietzsche’s later cry of the death of God and his searching diagnosis; “Everything lacks meaning. What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The goal is lacking; the answer is lacking to our ‘Why?’” were not taken seriously either. After all, wasn’t Heine a poet, and wasn’t Nietzsche later deranged? In the same context, Jean Paul Sartre challenged, “Let us look at ourselves if we can bear to, and see what is becoming of us. First we must face that unexpected revelation, the strip tease of our humanism.” These two men could easily be dismissed as pessimistic, prejudiced politically and philosophically, but the disquiet does not stop there.

Coming closer to the heart of humanism and speaking almost as an heir to a distinguished humanist house, Aldous Huxley described himself this way: “I was born wandering between two worlds, one dead and the other powerless to be born, and have made in a curious way the worst of both.” From the world of science John Rader Platt, the American biophysicist, said, “The world has now become too dangerous for anything less than Utopia.”…

The death of God goes far beyond the decline of religious belief. It is as if man has drunk up the sea, sponged away the entire horizon and unchained the earth from the sun. God is dead. God remains dead, and all that for which God was once held responsible must disappear too, and this terrible game is played until the last throw of the dice. In the world without God man is not so much free as overwhelmingly responsible. David Hume had admitted, “I am first affrighted and confounded with that forlorn solitude, in which I am plac’d in my philosophy.”

The director’s intentions seem most certain when he records how his characters cross social boundaries with small, disinterested gestures of sympathy and compassion. Maréchal, the film’s everyman, is usually the recipient of these gestures—from the German officer who cuts his food, the French engineer who washes his feet, the guard who tries to cheer him up with cigarettes and a harmonica, de Boeldieu who warmly welcomes him back from solitary confinement, and, of course, Elsa, who spontaneously decides to take him in. The affectionate farewell between Maréchal and Rosenthal, that odd and sometimes contentious couple, marks the real climax of the film, to which the German soldier’s caustic comment when they reach safety (“Lucky for them”) provides a brief coda.

Tom Paxton." His classic "Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation" was pointedly about being drafted to serve in Vietnam, but if you substitute any international conflict, the words still ring true. The song sings about being part of an escalation of troops, fighting a neverending war, using force to proliferate peace: all topics as topical today (unfortunately) as they were when the song was penned. Lyndon Johnson told the nation have no fear of escalation / I am trying everyone to please / Though it isn't really war, I'm sending 50,000 more / to help save Vietnam from the Vietnamese"

In contrast to its aesthetic clarity, the political meaning of Grand Illusion is elusive (and will never be precisely determined). Renoir himself said it was a film against war and so it has usually been seen,( but that simple response is not credible).  The title echoes the famous antiwar book by Norman Angell, The Great Illusion, which appeared in French as La Grande Illusion. And, of course, the film does condemn chauvinism and national stereotypes. From the two opening scenes, the first one in a French and next in a German officers’ mess, Renoir draws parallels between the two sides. His Germans are often humane; they may sometimes seem foolish, but they are never cruel or demonic. Indeed, many of the prison guards look old and frail, too small for their uniforms and hardly strong enough to carry their heavy rifles. There are a few scenes when we are told about the suffering war causes—usually by women: the widows in black who stand outside the camp gate and watch the new recruits (“Those poor lads,” one of them says) and, most dramatically, by Elsa who points to photos of the family members she has lost. But the pacifist message of film as a whole is less transparent. ( James J. Sheehan )

The humanists claimed that they could retain Christian values and give them a validity independent of God. But Nietzsche dismissed this as impossible since Christianity was the entire under girding of all Western civilization, not only of its religious beliefs but also of its social values and its fundamental view of man. He diagnosed, not progress, but a time of decadence whose logic is nihilism. There remains only the void. Man is falling. His dignity is gone. His values are lost. There is no difference between up and down. It has become chilly, and a dark night is closing in.

…Modern philosophy also has reduced the pretentions of reason. For man, speaking from a finite reference point without divine revelation, to claim to have found a “universal” is not just to be mistaken. The claim itself is meaningless. For most modern men, objectivity, universals or absolutes are in a realm beyond the scope of reason; in this realm there is only the existential, non-rational, subjective understanding of truth.

Both psychology and philosophy have thus clipped the ego fueled wings of rationalism and the unlimited usefulness of reason by itself. By rationalism ; not “rationalism” as opposed to “empiricism” but rather the hidden premise common to both : the humanist’s leap of faith in which the critical faculty of reason is tacitly made into an absolute and used as a super-tool to marshal particulars and claim meaning which in fact is proper only to the world of universals.

Camus argued arguing that modern egalitarianism is the secularization of the soul’s original equality before God. “Totality is, in effect, nothing other than the ancient dream of unity common to both believers and rebels, but projected horizontally onto an earth deprived of God.”

An important pillar that Renoir challenges is the belief in progress. The orientation toward the future introduced into Western culture by Christian linear teleology was secularized by the Enlightenment. Ostensibly it had been given objective scientific support by the evolutionary theory. It was widely believed that nature was marching forward inevitably to higher and higher views of life, as expressed, for instance, in the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. But this is subtly  undermined in the film. It is easy to point to evidence of an evolutionary crisis, somewhat tarnishing the comfortable image of inevitable progress with man at the center of the stage controlling his own evolution. The end of the film is even a sobering prognosis of the extinction of the human species, such being the crisis that was to unfold several years after the film’s release.

ADDENDUM: “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way–an honorable way–in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life, I was able to understand the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

In front of me a man stumbled and those following him fell on top of him. The guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoners existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one: I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return, and I answered…” ( Viktor Frankl )

Also to be questioned in the film is the axiomatic belief in the self-sufficiency of man. A persistent erosion of man’s view of himself is occurring. The fact that man has made so many significant scientific discoveries points strongly to the significance of man, yet the content of these same scientific discoveries underscores his insignificance. Man finds himself dwarfed bodily by the vast stretches of space and belittled temporally by the long reaches of time. Humanists are caught in a strange dilemma. If they affirm the greatness of man, it is only at the expense of ignoring his aberrations. If they regard human aberrations seriously, they have to escape the dilemma raised, either by blaming the situation on God, which is ironic given the often  strong affirmations on the non-existence of God,  or by reducing man to the point of insignificance where his aberrations are no longer a problem. During World War II, Einstein, plagued by the mounting monstrosity of man against man, was heard to mutter to himself, “After all, this is a small star.” He escaped the dilemmas of man’s crime and evil but only at the price of undermining man’s significance.

A supreme characteristic of men today is the high degree of dissatisfaction with their own views of themselves. The opposition to determinism is growing not because determinism explains nothing but because it explains too much. It is a clutching constriction on that which man feels himself to be. Arthur Koestler attacks it as “ratomorphic,” Viktor Frankl as “modern nihilism” and Noam Chomsky as “the flat earth view of man.”


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Posted by Dave on Sep 20th, 2010 and filed under Cinema/Visual/Audio, Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion, Literature/poetry/spoken word, Marketing/Advertising/Media, Miscellaneous, Modern Arts/Craft, Music/Composition/Performance. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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