BFI Classics: La Grande Illusion

Author: Julian Jackson

Julian Jackson is Professor of Modern History at Queen Mary’s and his magisterial book on Renoir’s 1937 classic La Grande Illusion has clearly been enhanced by the rigor of his day-job.  For the uninitiated, La Grande Illusion presents us with a group of French POWs trying to escape Germany during the First World War.  But a stereotypical prison film this isn’t as Renoir’s masterpiece is as politically complex and sensitive as it is dramatic.  The film is widely celebrated for both Renoir’s nuanced technical virtuosity as well as its ability to engage with the ideological juxtapositions and crises of its turbulent time.  La Grande Illusion is devastatingly prescient in that it alludes to the darker era to come whilst also portraying its characters sympathetically as conflicted and flawed individuals.  In steering clear of both cynicism and sentimentality it defines itself as a true work of art committed to an understanding of humanity at a time of great fear, division and hatred.

Jackson’s previous publications include titles like The Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy 1934-1938 and France: The Dark Years 1940-1944 and throughout his book on La Grande Illusion it is clear that his expertise make him an excellent guide to not only its historical context but also to the intricacies of its internecine politics.  It is a testament to the lucidity of his writing that in a book of a mere 107 pages Jackson is able to give you both a history lesson as well as a sensitive and panoramic reading of the film itself without you ever feeling as though the detail of one was sacrificed for the other.  There is also just the right amount of biography on Renoir and Jackson never allows the personality of the director to eclipse either his art or the contributions of his colleagues.  In fact people like Stroheim (the actor who played Rauffenstein), Dalio (Rosenthal) and Spaak (the film’s co-writer) are allowed to come through with such vibrancy that we begin to think of La Grande Illusion as the product of a varied and volatile ensemble just as the drama of the actual film is.   

This is not to say however that Renoir’s vision as an exemplary director is at all ignored.  Even though the auteur’s brilliance is balanced with that of his colleagues we are constantly offered evidence of his unique approach to filmmaking that really is at the heart of La Grande Illusion’s enduring success.  His interest in long takes and a kind of visceral realism are analysed in a way that invites you to separate Renoir’s technique from both cinematic convention as well as poetic realism.  Renoir’s politics are also measured against the film’s without the former overwhelming Jackson’s appreciation of the latter.  Jackson divides the film’s treatment of race, class, nationality and gender under separate headings – his treatment of gender being particularly illuminative.

Jackson’s engagement with the film’s political context is really where his book thrives though and it would work just as well as an introduction to Vichy France let alone to Renoir and La Grande Illusion. There is even a fantastic and perhaps audacious section where the futures of the characters’ are imagined in the years of Nazi-occupation that followed which does not seek to answer questions so much as it seeks to raise them.  Jackson perpetually uses anecdotes related to the film’s makers to launch his contextual departures which obviously shows the extent of his immersion in the era and the film, but it also means that whilst he may be discussing something as complex (and potentially as dull) as the intricacies of early twentieth century European politics the text is never overbearing as they always gesture back towards the film, and ultimately – as La Grande Illusion does – the humans caught upon the currents of history.

If there was a criticism to make it’d be that the book lacks the sort of polemic that would raise it beyond being a point-blank study of the film.  This seems like a desperate attempt at nitpicking though because Jackson’s reading of La Grande Illusion is ultimately so total that without having to revolutinise our approach to the film he actually reveals it to us in ways that expand on a work of art so multifaceted, so enduring.

Kieran McGrath.

Share this!