Grand Illusion (1937, directed by Jean Renoir, written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak) isn't the kind of movie I usually go nuts about, but I did enjoy it. It's set, for the most part, in a series of German POW camps during World War One. Renoir got the idea for the story from a pilot he knew during the war who was shot down seven times, captured by the Germans seven times, and escaped from POW camps seven times. Renoir was himself a pilot; the DVD features a still of him in a completely ridiculous all-wooden plane. Anyway, the movie isn't really much like the idea; it's not a Stalag 17 or whatever. You only see one actual escape attempt (though a few happen off-screen). Mostly, it's about I'd seen one other Renoir movie before this one, The Rules of the Game. Which, incidentally, is fantastic.
Grand Illusion isn't quite my cup of tea. Renoir's thing is kind of elaborate shots that have been really carefully blocked out and framed. An example in this movie is a really neat shot where the camera circles around a dinner table; although the conversation seems natural, everyone who's talking is in frame as the camera goes counter-clockwise. It's really claustrophobic and cool; and it's also been copied and refined since then. Shoulders of giants and all that: Scorsese does the same stuff, but better. Not a fair comparison, because he had better equipment and much more money. But because I saw Goodfellas before Grand Illusion, I wasn't as surprised or amazed by the camera work as I might have been otherwise. And yes, yes, Scorsese wouldn't have been able to do his thing without studying Renoir and people who learned from him, but the end result is that although the camera work is really, really impressive in this movie, I appreciated it abstractly more than viscerally. T.S. Eliot (who I've been loathe to quote since a high school phase, but wait for it):
Someone said: "The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did." Precisely, and they are what we know.
So, you know, Renoir's got that going for him. I mean, Eliot's right, and it's the reason for studying older art generally. But in film more than other arts, there's a thrill in seeing something being done for the first time that can't be reproduced by watching a movie nearly seventy years after the fact. And I think it has a lot to do with the fact that film is so dependent on technology, in a way that literature isn't; writing hasn't really changed that much in the last thousand years. Don't get me wrong--there are techniques that are developed and refined over time, and writers build on their forebears. But it's still language; it's not like that has been improved on so much recently. Not like, say, Steadicams. The movies I think are really great are about narrative, not technique, and they stand up. Grand Illusion has a lot of very obvious technique, so some of it feels dated; what my friend Adam calls a "homework movie."
The acting is quality: Erich Von Stroheim is great as a German career officer. He shoots down the two main characters at the beginning of the war, and disappears from the movie till about the halfway point, when he's been seriously injured and is running a prison camp that's supposed to be impossible to escape from. Once injured, he limps around in a corset and neck brace, wearing white gloves to cover horrific burns. He's better in Sunset Boulevard but he's pretty amazing here. And the shot that announces his return is a classic horror-movie style thing; the camera tracks over all his (really bizarre) possessions, then settles on his orderly, getting his white gloves ready, follows him all over the room, and finally puts Von Stroheim in the frame. Picture worth a thousand words:
The DVD has a really cool extra on the restoration of the film; a little of the history. The movie was released in 1937. There was an American version, much shorter. Grand Illusion in this version screened at the White House on Eleanor Roosevelt's birthday--after seeing it, FDR said "Everyone who believes in democracy should see this film." I think politicians should endorse movies and books more often; this is a good start. The Nazis banned the movie, but they saved a print or two. When Berlin fell, these were shipped back to Moscow by the Russians, who looted the German film archives (well, not so much looted as "carefully catalogued," but still). In 1958, a restored version was made from a duped negative; it was very scratchy, and the whole right side of the film was blurry. Criterion did a restoration job on this version in the eighties, but it was still pretty scratchy and blurry. In the early nineties, though, the original camera negative (the film that was actually running through the camera when it was shot) was found in the Russian film archives, and that's what Criterion restored for this edition. The featurette shows each version; you see the scratches, hair, cigarette burns, and blurry focus disappear with each successive restoration.
Random notes and things I liked:
- Some phrases stay in English, even in Europe, e.g., "Top Model." I was really happy to see someone credited as "Script Girl" in the otherwise all-French credits.
- Not just FDR: Benito Mussolini liked this movie enough that he invited Renoir to lecture on film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. Weirder still, he did it. No word as to whether the Duce said "Everyone who believes in fascism should see this film!"
- Casablanca wasn't the first movie in which French patriots drown out Germans by singing La Marseillaise.
- BONUS FEATURE: KNOW YOUR NAZIS!!!: The guy who does the audio essay on this DVD incorrectly identifies the song the Germans are singing in Casablanca as the Horst Wessel song. It's actually "Wacht am Rhein."
- Clever dialogue from an aristocrat lamenting democratization: "The pox used to be our privilege, but not anymore. Cancer and gout aren't working class diseases, but they will be, believe me."
- I can't stand scenes between lovers where they both are facing the camera. This works on stage but good riddance to this in film.
- The narrative structure of this movie is very, very weird. It's three acts and an epilogue, I guess, but the third act (in which two of the main characters hide out with a German woman near the Swiss border) seems very out of place--the rest of it is all men, all the time. This last part starts about twenty minutes before the end of the movie, so you're not expecting a big shift in focus there. It's kind of like the early stuff in Mexico in The Wild Bunch, all of a sudden you're surrounded by domestic stuff that was completely lacking before. But it happens very late in the movie and really doesn't seem that connected to the rest of the story.
Next up, Seven Samurai.