Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Double Feature: Grand Illusion (1937) / Paths of Glory (1957)

“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
- Samuel Johnson

That line is quoted early on in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, a brilliant World War I film about a risky mission gone wrong. But it might have just as well belonged in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, an influential French film that deals with the relationships between a group of French officers in a German war camp. Although the films were made two decades apart and in different countries, the similarities are striking. Both are black-and-white World War I films about the French army, and both have strong anti-war messages. The two films tackle different realities of war, though – Paths of Glory deplores military corruption, while Grand Illusion laments the way war tears apart human relationships.

Grand Illusion is a war film without the war. There is never a single battle sequence in the film, nor should there be. The story focuses on a group of French officers who are taken as prisoners of war in a German prison camp. Among the captives are Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a wealthy aristocrat, Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a middle-class soldier, and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish banker. The men spend every night digging an underground tunnel to escape, but they are deported to another camp before they get the chance. At the new camp, the supposedly inescapable Wintersborn, they meet up with the German Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), who first shot down Boeldieu’s plane. At Wintersborn, the men eventually pull off a somewhat successful escape, but not without the cost of one man’s life.

I spent much of the first half of Grand Illusion puzzled at its supposedly pacifist message. I suppose I was used to films like Saving Private Ryan, which depicts horrible conditions and sickeningly violent battles to push its message that war is hell. In contrast, the prison camp in Grand Illusion seems downright cheery. The prisoners are treated well, given large quarters, seem fairly happy, and even put on a musical show. But I began to understand that Renoir was not interested in depicting the physical horrors of war. Renoir wrote that the film was “a story about human relationships,” and it is exactly that.

The key relationship in the film is the one between Captain de Boeldieu and Captain von Rauffenstein. Von Rauffenstein is a hospitable captor – after he shoots down the plane, he invites Boeldieu to lunch before he is sent to the camp. The two captains immediately get on, discussing a mutual friend in Berlin. Later, when Boeldieu is reunited with von Rauffenstein at Wintersborg, they seem glad to see each other again, and have a conversation about what will come about after the war. It has been said that World War I was the most literary war; it was led by well-educated aristocrats. That idea runs throughout Grand Illusion, especially in the scenes with the two captains. They discuss how the age of the aristocrat is ending, and von Rauffenstein speaks of having to go on leading a “futile existence” after the war. The scenes between the two men have great poignancy, and the acting is tremendous. Apparently Erich von Stroheim spoke almost no German and struggled through his lines, but he conveys the essence of his character with facial expressions. Von Stroheim was himself a silent movie director, and no doubt realized the power of facial acting.

Another important relationship is introduced near the end of the film. Maréchal and Rosenthal have escaped, and stay with a German widow named Elsa (Dita Parlo) in the countryside. A romance blossoms between Maréchal and Elsa, even though neither can speak the other’s language. But the two soldiers have to leave for Switzerland, and Elsa breaks down crying, telling Maréchal how she has been alone for so long. These two relationships (von Rauffenstein and Boeldieu, Maréchal and Elsa) reveal the essential tragedy of Grand Illusion. Outside of war, these characters would be best friends, but war dictates that they cannot be.

If aristocratic French officers are the heroes of Grand Illusion, they are the villains in Paths of Glory. Kirk Douglas is Colonel Dax, just about the only sympathetic officer in the film. Dax’s corrupt superior officer, General Mireau (George Macready) is ordered by his superior, General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) to lead an attack on a well-fortified German hill. Dax insists that it is a suicide mission, but Mireau insists on the attack – mainly for the possibility of promotion. When the attack inevitably fails, Mireau blames it on cowardice, and orders 3 men to be tried under penalty of death. The trial is a sham, and despite Dax’s noblest efforts, the three innocent men are ordered to die.

Paths of Glory is a very cynical film, exposing the inherent corruption in the high ranks of the army. The battle scenes are grim, and probably more harrowing than most films of the time, but the most terrifying scenes occur “behind the scenes,” so to speak – in offices and courts. After the mission inevitably fails, Mireau calls a meeting with Colonel Dax and General Broulard. Mireau, who prides himself on being a principled patriot, initially calls for one hundred men to be killed. Broulard calms him down, eventually working the number down to three, much to Mireau’s disappointment.

The scene is disturbing because it becomes clear how cold and distant these generals are. They feel no guilt in sentencing three innocent men to death and then genially making lunch plans. Dax, meanwhile, is caught in the middle, working his best to defend the innocent men. Douglas may be more of a movie star than a great actor, but his performance in Paths of Glory is very effective. Dax is appalled at the situation, but must contain his anger during the trial. The whole film is a very quiet one. For the most part, there are no impassioned monologues, no tirades against injustice – until the penultimate scene in the film. After the execution, Broulard offers Dax Mireau’s job, implying that Dax has been aiming for promotion all along. Dax, who feels like he has been used, finally explodes, calling Broulard a “degenerate, sadistic old man” and refuses to apologize. The scene is cathartic for both Dax and the audience.

Kubrick adds an interesting tag to the end of the film. The soldiers are gathered in a bar, where a captured German woman is brought onstage to sing a folk song. The men cheer and whistle, but when she starts singing the whole place falls silent. Everyone is clearly affected, and several of the men visibly weep. It’s not clear why - maybe they are thinking of their sweethearts back home, or maybe they are just wondering how this poor woman found herself so far from home. But for a moment, the German woman and the French soldiers, so different superficially, are united in song. It is a very emotional scene, and would not have felt out of place in Grand Illusion. Indeed, I wonder if Kubrick was inspired by Renoir’s film.

Both Grand Illusion and Paths of Glory are incredibly accomplished films. Grand Illusion is by far more influential, and is widely praised as one of the greats of French cinema. But Paths of Glory is a wonderful example of studio filmmaking by a true auteur who would soon transcend it. Grand Illusion shows that a bond can exist between people who should have nothing to do with each other. In the same way, two directors from different backgrounds and countries here made two separate masterworks about the follies of war.

Grand Illusion: A
Paths of Glory: A


RKBC said...

On the music: you might be interested in the holiday issue of The Economist. There's an article about "why" music, trying to understand its power, origins, uses. It's burdened by some of the wry English style but provocative nonetheless

HAL-9000 said...

I've been really meaning to check these out, they both look very good. Great write up, as usual.