The Grand Illusion — why it’s one of my favorite movies

August 17, 2013 by Joshua
in Art, Blog

I re-watched The Grand Illusion last night for the first time in a long time.

My main measure for movie quality is do I like watching it more each time I watch it or less. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind I like more each time. Most romantic comedies I like less each time. (Curiously, I find I like Star Wars both more and less each time.)

The Grand Illusion probably wins for how much more I like it each time I watch. Made in 1937, black-and-white, and mostly in French, it isn’t the most popular movie these days. Knowing the Nazis named it their number one most banned movie might make it a bit more exciting.

Why do I like it so much?

Some famous director, asked to describe what he wanted to say with his movie said something like “If I could say what the movie was about in words I would have just said them. The movie is about what the movie is about. The movie says what I wanted to say.” Based on that, I’m inclined to let the movie speak for itself — I don’t pretend I could improve on its message.

But some things about the movie I can’t help commenting about and they relate to this blog’s topics. I’ve meant to post about it for a long time. I don’t review movies, so I hope you’ll forgive my new foray. If you like this page you’ll probably like that movie so I hope I help motivate you to see it.

It presents the intersection of many issues thoughtfully and with the subtlety understanding them needs. Today’s media and public discourse cover these issues heavy-handedly, bludgeoning that subtlety until it’s gone. You just end up for or against. Then you can’t talk about them meaningfully or learn and grow.

The issues cover how people relate to each other and how class, nationality, religion, war, time, sex, and other things affect relationships. If I didn’t see the movie I’d expect trying to cover all these things would water a movie down. The Grand Illusion, by contrast, shows how each connects with the others and illuminates how they work.

The movie mainly focuses on three characters — two French officers and one German during World War I. The French officers are captured by the Germans and put into prisoner of war camps. You immediately see officers treat officers differently — with mutual respect, almost like chess players would look at each other, presumably treating unseen enlisted fighters like pieces to order around (since while they drink cognac at the other side’s table’s hundreds of thousands of men are dying in trenches). The officers have a mutual connection, brotherhood, and camaraderie that belies the illusion of the whole war. The officers across lines seem closer than the officers to their own countries’ fighters.

But the class differences among officers are the core of the movie, or at least half of it. One German and one French officer are aristocrats from old noble families. Their connection is one of the two tightest of the movie. See the movie to see how they connect, transcending national boundaries.

You can’t help but ask who’s fighting whom and for whom? And why? … after all, these aristocrats don’t seem to want to fight. They may get wounded and even die, but not like the fighters. And their misery in the castle-used-as-prisoner-of-war-camp is nothing like the misery of the unseen men in the trenches or even of the non-aristocrats in the castle.

A heavy-handed approach might just say look at how the rich oppress the poor, getting them to fight and die for them. This movie shows thinks more. Everyone’s identity depends on everyone else’s and their groups are changing historically. Each character has his predicament. The aristocracy is dying out while one prisoner comes from a wealthy family and shares his care packages from home, where he eats better than his German captors. The Germans and French sympathize with each other, all forced into a jail, nobody knowing which side will win or lose, knowing hundreds of thousands of their countrymen are dying and being forced to kill each other. They see boys and old men acting as soldiers to fight. They feel the patriotism of the other side almost as well as their own.

Nobody has it easy. Everybody interacts and affects everybody else in meaningful ways. Each character connects to people and groups you know today, leading you to reflect on your life.

Everything interrelates but the movie doesn’t force it on you. It just shows the characters interacting. Between attempting to escape, building tunnels, solitary confinement, trying to keep a flower alive, and so on, each interacts with each other in meaningful, touching ways.

The other half of the core of the movie is the only woman. She enters after two men escape and have to try to make their way to neutral Switzerland. Hiding in some farm’s storage shed, they can’t help being caught by the widow running the farm. One officer who couldn’t connect to his countryman across the aristocracy class boundary despite being in the same army immediately connects with her, despite not speaking the same language. Her husband and brothers died in the war, in some of her country’s ostensibly greatest victories.

What is war for, where the people fighting die and the people they are fighting for lose what they value most too — their loved ones? Why do we do something where nobody gains? Where enemy soldiers dine together and deeply connect in one context but kill each other in another?

Until her the movie only referenced women through their absence, though a few scenes tell a lot, in particular when they get a package of clothing for a play that included women’s clothing. Their absence is only physical. If these men have a reason for killing each other and dying, their feelings toward women must play a major role.

She has a daughter and hasn’t had a man on her farm in a long time. She and her daughter and the French men immediately connect, cementing the rest of the grand illusion of the movie — that the lines by which we divide and over which we fight each other miss what we mean to each other. The aristocrats connect more intimately across front lines than with non-aristocrats. Working men and women connect no matter their backgrounds. People jump to fight each other, yet crave to connect, the more intimately the better.

Several scenes in the movie grab you by the gut. Others make you think. Some do both. I’m no movie connoisseur, but I don’t know of a movie in the three-quarters of a century since The Grand Illusion that matches its thoughtfulness, tenderness, and ability to provoke thought.

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