Thoughts On: The Grand Illusion (Le Grande Illusion, 1937)
A group of French POWs try to escape their rather cordial prison camps.
A group of French POWs try to escape their rather cordial prison camps.
It is far too easy to say, but, The Grand Illusion is a masterpiece, and whilst I wouldn't say that it is my favourite film, it is impossible to not hold this movie dear to oneself as an example of a cinema that is eternal; that will seemingly forever reach out to audiences and have its impact. Because it is so widely lauded, finding something to say about Renoir's masterpiece is a difficult task. However, what fascinates me most about The Grand Illusion is the juxtaposition between what it says, how it says it and the fact that it is considered a masterpiece. In turn, I'm interested in why The Grand Illusion is considered, not just a masterpiece, but one of the greatest films ever made. But, before discussing exactly why I believe this to be the case, it is appropriate that I should briefly build a case for this being such an important film.
In essence, The Grand Illusion is a reflection upon all that went wrong in the 20th century. It emerges from the earlier half of the 1900s, but, this turns out to be a great advantage for the fact that, in the mid to late-30s, Renoir would have been quite far removed from WWI, and so capable of beginning to see how exactly it was going to shape the world. Moreover, he was not immersed in the chaos of post-WWII Europe and so his view doesn't become muddled by a cloud of grey - which is what many cinemas became lost in during the later 40s and tried, in various ways, to move away from throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s. Alas, one of The Grand Illusion's key realisations, a realisation or premonition that hung over Europe and even the entire world for much of the 20s and 30s, was that there was another Great War to come. And such is the 'Grand Illusion' that the film references; the illusion that war is over, the illusion that war has a purpose and, in turn, that once wars conclude social problems will be resolved and there will be ceaseless peace. In essence, The Grand Illusion then realises that, though WWI was an indescribable horror, it certainly wasn't the war to end all wars. And it makes this point just before the out-break of WWII in a context of growing tensions and developing ideologies that would come to conflict for the much of the century to come (those primarily being fascism, communism, socialism and capitalism).
In making such a point, The Grand Illusion doesn't become fear mongering propaganda, and nor does it use tragedy and reductive commentary. And this is why I believe that this is such a powerful film. The Grand Illusion confronts ideology and war without the pretence of an ideological solution, just human commentary. One could certainly argue that Renoir attaches himself to some ideology, maybe humanism, with The The Grand Illusion. This assertion could be based upon the fact that Renoir was a particularly political person who was bound to the Popular Front movement in France during the 30s, an organisation that collected left and far-left viewpoints (socialist/communist). But, whilst one sees elements of a Marxist commentary in The Grand Illusion's apparent documentation of the fall of aristocracy and the bourgeois to the working class man - it is in fact accepted as an inevitability not to be hindered by some characters - there is certainly a lack of a fundamentally Marxist viewpoint centred on the oppression of the lower classes via the power of the higher classes. In fact, to say that The Grand Illusion is particularly Marxist, communist or socialist in its ideals would leave anyone attempting to access its meaning scratching their head. Seeing this film from such a political context would even lend one to criticism which would blindside them to the point made by the narrative - which is quite hard to bind to a coherent ideology.
Exuding a basic interest in humanity, The Grand Illusion moves beyond the sphere ideology, which is a conscious and egoic one. The wealth of humanity is nestled in the unconscious mind, not the conscious mind, and it is best expressed by the integration of unconsciousness into consciousness. This is a Jungian philosophy and he called such a process of balancing the unconscious with the conscious as to become whole 'individuation'. He has then said the following:
There were psychic processes and functions long before any ego-consciousness existed: "Thinking" existed long before man was able to say: "I am conscious of thinking".
Such an idea for Jung validates the focus on understanding the unconscious mind as the source of a person's true being. Moreover, this statement when juxtaposed with Jung's theory of the archetypes suggests that, not just thinking, but understanding existed long before man was able to say, "I am conscious of understanding". This embeds an element of profound truth in the unconscious processes, which puts a much higher value on this dark and numinous aspect of humanity. Consciousness seems to be a filter that mediates between reality and the perception of self. Freud would describe such a phenomena in terms of the ego as one's idea of "I", the id as one's unconscious (what Jung would emphasise is only the personal unconscious) and the superego as the force that mediates between the outside world, personal impulse via the id and one's idea of themself via their ego. Consciousness in such a respect is burdened by its need to know, to figure out the world and identify with the best solutions - which is what one does when they use their ego to formulate functional personalities. Alas, what Jung and the psychoanalysts emphasise is not that one figures out the world and goes on to function properly, instead that one only struggles to understand themself. One must understand themself as answers lie trapped within, or rather, mechanisms for answering lay trapped within. As great poets once said: Forget your lust for the rich man's gold; all you need is in your soul... be a simple kind of man. To understand oneself, one must learn how to articulate and shape what is within; what resides in the unconscious mind. And such is Jung's theory of individuation re-articulated. One is born with the ability to make noise, in turn, they are born with the potential to speak. Alas, it is through the mediation of unconscious ability and conscious effort that noise turns into babbling, into basic speech that gets more complex, that can one day see someone write a book or a movie that has a profound impact on others, that can see someone form great friendships, express their love and humanity and uplift others.
Ideology emerges from the conscious mind in that it is a knowing reflection upon ones temperament (which is embedded in unconsciousness). It is then one part of a puzzle of humanity that is subservient to more complex structures embedded in unconsciousness. Above ideology is then social rule. One may argue that social rule is an ideology, but, that is not the case. Social rule, like thinking, existed long before man was able to say, "I am conscious of social rule". Being conscious of social rule provides one the opportunity to turn what are fundamental terms of engagement into an ideology that either supports or denotes what it emerges from. Ideology will nonetheless appear fickle before social order because such a phenomena is not arbitrary (which is not to say that all ideology is) and it is not conjured up in the conscious mind and formulated on a piece of paper. Social order is an expression of a collective unconscious. The means by which the collective unconscious, or essential humanity, is expressed is always imperfect by virtue of the fact that 'expression' means that unconscious truth must pass through consciousness. The degree to which this is measurable and obvious, however, is far less intense than is the case with ideology. Thus, social rule is less an 'idea' made into an -ism, and more an impulse acted out.
I linger on this argument because it not only reflects much about the content of The Grand Illusion, but clarifies the process by which Renoir formulates his content. Putting aside his own explicit ideology, Renoir delves into the unconscious in search of humanity. He thus pushes aside ideology and dogma as they are packaged by religion, class and politics to determine what the foundations of human connection are and how, possibly, positive thought structures and ideologies can emerge from such a place. And for such a reason it becomes most tolerable and easy to associate The Grand Illusion with humanism; it centres the value of human life above all in its ideological make-up. And it does this to explore, sympathetically and with interest in character and self, the ideals of Germans, Frenchmen, Jewish people, aristocrats, middle-class and working class men, etc. In parallel to this, The Grand Illusion forms a rather objective allegory about the rise of the common man and the fall of old social rules that primarily represent the functions and duties of the highest classes. Without explicit depiction and without any illusions about the inability for such things to simply dissolve, Renoir then touches on the dissolution of social class boundaries, showing all soldiers as equal men. These 'equal men' are not the same, however. They conflict because they are bound to differing cultural structures; aristocrats don't easily mix with working class Joes, Jews do not easily mix with Christians, German, French and English men don't easily mix and so fourth. Alas, whilst this remains true, it does not impede fraternity and dutiful, human function. This is at least shown to be true with all conflicting cultural attributes apart from race - a theme that is only alluded to with a black man being ignored.
What unfolds in The Grand Illusion is consequently two-fold. Renoir shows how, on multiple levels of analysis, humans can connect to one another; can perceive what is not explicitly their own self as partly their self and so imbued with incorruptible value. In becoming connected Renoir's characters move closer together, but do not lose their individual humanity - which is to say, they do not become godly saints floating in the ether of an imagined utopian collective unconscious. Nonetheless, the world and individuals emerge all the better for the progress that is made over the course of the narrative. In conjuncture to this one fold of The Grand Illusion is then Renoir's venture to suppress ideological, or rather, conscious premeditation for an in-moment enquiry of meaning and true, fundamental rule. The rules of Renoir's world are predicated on a failure to understand how to do anything but what one can only perceived to be of the highest moral right. There is then introduced an element of moral relativism with Renoir showing how a German commander is doing a moral good by killing a Frenchman. But, Renoir's point is not that the German commander did his duty and in turn became a patriot, but that he played the game he knew he had to and that the Frenchman knew he had to, and that the playing through of this game freed two men and gave the sacrificial Frenchman, who is seemingly bound to greater moral substance in being on the Allied side of the Great War, a good death. It is through this set of moral quandaries that the German actually served the higher moral right by killing the Frenchman - which he in fact didn't want to, and didn't mean to, do. And such is a perfect example of how Renoir uses ideology, for example, nationalism, to mine down through the shallow depths of consciousness into the humanity that lies under and that, by the will of good and the luck of humanity, will continue on as social order morphs and changes in the hands of those who will live on in the future.
To conclude, it appears to me that The Grand Illusion is such a powerful film and a masterpiece so widely and prevalently lauded because it manages to move past ideological facades in search of humanity. In performing this rare cinematic act, Renoir formulates an additive commentary that seeks humanistic transcendent ascension over reductive social critique and in turn resonates with the truth of the collective unconscious presiding over cinema - an ether into which this film has been firmly integrated.
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