In comparison to Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion, only one film in all the annals of cinema evinces a more thoroughgoing and vividly cinematic perspective on the role of public artifice and presentation in everyday life: The Rules of the Game, the film Renoir directed only two years afterward. Although this earlier film does not quite boast the dexterous, unkempt camera vivacity of The Rules of the Game, nor does it apply that camera so singularly to dissect the “on-stage” and “off-stage” realms of human life, The Grand Illusion remains one of the most enormously well-threaded cinematic experiences nonetheless, as well as one of the most desperately humanistic.
Preluded with parallel scenes of French officers and German officers in similarly anointed bars discussing disarmingly sensual matters in similitude, The Grand Illusion, with only a few minutes under its belt, has constructed a world that permeates through diaphanous circumstance and into a core, primeval notion of selfhood. The graphic match at the intro places social constructs front-and-center, comparing two nations through the long, jacketed arm of their military, yet it poses not difference but similitude among the two groups.
What will unfurl nominally constitutes a “POW film” or a prison escape flick, but Renoir’s cinema-as-worldview conversational camera tracking motions and cohesive camera pans, more elemental than in The Rules of the Game but no less pregnant and profound, are as diametrically opposed to, say, the fluffy The Great Escape as worldviews might allow. Although that later film was influenced by Renoir’s work, the “prison” in Renoir’s film is not only, or even primarily, a tangible location; it’s a social structure, a construct, a world view, even a sense of self. Vying “groups” may share similarities, as evinced by the opening scenes, but it is our differences that both hinder us and, ultimately, save us as well.
Instead of a barrage of battered cadavers, Renoir’s playful, communal, neighborhood prison camp is a medley of social roles tested and teased, prefigured and post-trauma, with class, nation, gender, age, military status, and even desire all coalescing in a study in self-hood that at once constructs the self as the amalgam of competing and conjoined identities and redistributes a larger self within the whole of society. Although galvanizing and kiln-blasting a view of the individual self that is distinctly in tension with its disparate and often piecemeal parts, few films have ever managed to so thoroughly reject the obsession with “individualism” in Western narrative structures .
Fittingly for a film about fluctuations in liquid identity, Renoir’s camera (or Christian Matras’s camera if you want to be honest) coasts with dreamlike grace, daring to transmogrify a prison into a carnival of social performance that bleeds both chaos (the French prisoners and their cavalcade of costumes) and regimented order (militial curtain calls and rituals). Renoir’s polyphonic view of both the individual and society, distinct but intertwined species both, is emphatically expressed in the moral architecture of his roving camera, tilting between views of disparate parts of society without sacrificing contiguous space. This continuity of space is a prime factor in the film, which is palpably and radically a horizontal work of art (a rarity in cinema, especially in prison escape films) in that it sacrifices a linear focus on time and forward momentum for shots that emphasize singular moments. With the camera swaying and panning throughout the world to draw in otherwise missed or peripheral spaces into that singular moment and connect the world momentarily, similarity and difference exist in uneasy harmony in the very architecture of Renoir’s framing. His war-torn world is paradoxically a cocktease, a pointed evocation of social space and public theater that suggests not only war itself, but class and all social differences, as social performance that both draws humans together and apart. Renoir’s cinema is a cinema of the periphery; if we focus on the plan ahead of us, we necessarily miss out on a life fully lived.
Which necessarily means that the proscenium arch is never far from view in The Grand Illusion, a theatrical work about the theater of everyday life that pointedly refrains from rejecting or shunning the performative nature of human beings. In The Grand Illusion, these grand illusions of class, nationality, and other social dissections are not lies but unconscious dreams that structure reality, all to be taken seriously as piecemeal portions of human identity but never the whole. Even at its most provocative – as when French aristocrat Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a prisoner, bonds with his captor Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) over their shared Old Money births – the film insists that no human is fundamentally reducible to any one social status, even as some statuses necessarily venture to the forefront in varying situations.
This worldview ultimately excavates a realm beyond the film’s more obvious meditation on the decline of the Old Order of Western civilization, where class trumped nationality as the glue of the European social structure. Still, said meditations are no slouch all their own. When Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin) and Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), working class and New Money officers respectively, fly the coop, they are not only threatening Nazi control but the stability of a classical worldview in which they are to listen to their aristocratic commanding officer and abide by his rules. Captain Boldieu’s existence as Frenchman and aristocrat, his ties to two social categories as well as two warring internal factions of the mind, are put on trial, confronted with the fallibility of both and the potential that the two may not be able to coexist in harmony as they once had.
Although the film’s essential humanism threatens a full scale assault of moral relativism, Renoir is more cagelike and curious in his sinuous prods into the European superstructures. Von Rauffenstein is not a tragic hero so much as a man deluded by a stiffened upper lip; he is at once culpable for his worldview and lost amidst it. His body has been damaged by the war, his chin now covered in a metallic prison. Yet his shattered sense of self, his aimless ego now ailing from the decimation of his worldview, is his greatest stumbling block. The castle that he commands, the prison for the back half of the film, is an iron shell for him, a reclusive palace within which he can masquerade under the false pretenses of a lost world, reconstructing an order in his domain at the expense of admitting himself to the world around him.
Renoir’s film is not reducible to a post-war state-of-mind, however; if it is informed by the mindset of its times, it is never trapped in von Rauffenstein’s mental cage. Renoir’s cinema is a humanist cinema for any time, a cinema where humanity, beaten and battered, always recollects itself and forges a path into the future. In his camera’s quiet ruminations on self and society, and specifically on the entanglement of the two and the exteriority of the human self defined by an amalgam of social roles too often fighting for supremacy, Renoir expresses the fractures in humanity always self-mending, and even self-constructing. The very divisions and social roles that separate us, framed within Renoir’s lyrical, compassionate, collective-spanning camera, instead coalesce into a wonderful coalition of different voices forging a path onward. The social stage that fractures us, always begging for everyone to adopt different roles, also functions as theater space within which we can discover or play out various facets of ourselves together. The famed sequence where von Rauffenstein and Boldieu come to bitter grips emphasizes not the gun in von Rauffenstein’s hand but the theatrical search light surrounding Boldieu, with the audience of von Rauffenstein theatrically pleading for some common connection between the two men. The grand illusion of social identity is ambidextrous; it may be a construct or an artifice, but it still has front row sets to the window into the soul.