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One of The Best Films About World War I Deserves to Make a Comeback

Jean Renoir beautifully illuminates the Great War's conflicts

Pierre Fresnay & Erich von Stroheim in La Grande Illusion

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to see Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve in a movie theater in San Francisco. Over the years I must have seen and loved it seven or eight times. This screening did not actually need a print of the film: it was a DCP, a digital version, and it was first class. When a flustered and seduced Henry Fonda reached up to restore Barbara Stanwyck’s hemline to a more modest place above her knee and she murmured, “Thank you,” I felt I was there.

This was for an audience of maybe 250. They laughed a lot. People who had not seen the picture before were delighted. It is good to know this 73-year-old film can still work its charms. Yet it occurred to me: could this be the last time I ever see it? Don’t be alarmed (or encouraged): I am not envisaging my own failure to be “there” for another screening. But in the normal way of things, past seventy, you do wonder about your chances. Will I stand before “Las Meninas” in the Prado again? Will I watch another cricket match at Lord’s? Can I be sure of seeing Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion once more, with projected film on a large screen where I can inhabit the faces of Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim, and with a crowd of strangers who will make that journey with me?

Such thoughts arose again on reading a new book, In Search of La Grande Illusion: A Critical Appreciation of Jean Renoir’s Elusive Masterpiece by Nicholas Macdonald. This is a rare and valuable work, one that concentrates on a special movie, made in 1937—famous certainly, but subject to the fickle nature of reputation. Macdonald examines the picture in fond detail. He reflects on the career and personality of Jean Renoir, not just the son of the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir but a boy in several of his paintings. More than that, he describes his own history with the film, and thus the place of movies in our lives. This is the more poignant subject now, because La Grande Illusion is one of the best films about the Great War, the centenary of which falls this year. You can see from the movie how far that war was a conflict in class and chivalry, horribly distorted by technological changes. Moreover, when La Grande Illusion opened, it had a large impact. The film captured audiences. It was the first foreign movie to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. But later Renoir observed that, while the world acclaimed its profound plea against more war, two years later war resumed. Such things could happen again; the technology is impatient.

Nicholas Macdonald was invited to see La Grande Illusion when he was fourteen. The offer came from his father, Dwight Macdonald, a cultural commentator of great value and importance. He wrote a lot for Partisan Review and The New Yorker, and he was a film critic at Esquire. (Not that importance is protection.) The teenaged Nicholas fell for the picture and saw it many times. Later on, in 1975, he and his father were discussing the film and a point of fact arose. Nicholas found the printed screenplay, a gift from Dwight, and the father read aloud the scene in question. “His voice began to quaver as he blew his nose and wiped his eyes,” the son recalls, “the words watery and garbled. Yet he continued to the end, forcing himself to honor the scene. I couldn’t remember ever seeing him cry before. Not one to show, or even acknowledge, deep feelings, he took pride in his journalistic sang-froid and was famous for slashing attacks, in print and in person.”

La Grande Illusion is similarly restrained with deep feelings. Most of the film is set in an Alsatian castle. The Frenchmen include Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a middle-class fellow; Boeldieu, an aristocrat (Pierre Fresnay); and Rosenthal, a Jew (Marcel Dalio). Von Stroheim plays Rauffenstein, an air ace reduced to camp commandant by a war injury. There is a French escape during which Boeldieu acts as a diversion. He and Rauffenstein are kindred spirits, because of class and shared history, but the commandant has to shoot and kill Boeldieu. Maréchal and Rosenthal escape and are helped by a German woman (Dita Parlo). It sounds very simple.

La grande illusion
Jean Gabin, Gaston Modot, Pierre Fresnay, Julian Carette, Jean Dasté, & Marcel Dalio in La Grande Illusion.

I urge you to read Macdonald’s book and to see Renoir’s film. It would not surprise me if in the United States in any year now twenty thousand people see La Grande Illusion. I am guessing, taking into account repertory revivals, Netflix rentals, classes and seasons on Renoir, and so on. That is good news, sustained by the movie being available on a good DVD in a world where the library for books has plenty of material on and by Renoir himself. Yet I would not be surprised to hear that only a few hundred will see the movie this year projected as film on a big screen. Is this worth bothering about when the technology is impatient and can easily tell us, what does it matter if the film is preserved?

Nicholas Macdonald, who is sixty-nine, and has made documentary films, understands our changing history with old films. For a time La Règle du Jeu, the other Renoir classic, often mentioned in the same breath as La Grande Illusion, was lost. In part that was because it was a flop in 1939, and then it was banned and the negative destroyed. But in the 1950s, La Regle was restored. It began to come into its own. There is now a fine DVD. And at a respectable dinner party, where most of the guests have graduated college, you can mention Jean Renoir along with the Cloud and the World Cup and expect to be understood. That’s right, people will say, the son of the painter, and they’ll recall the couple of titles I’ve mentioned. But La Chienne, Toni, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, The River, French Cancan, The Golden Coach? Less likely. Then try these names: Alexander Dovzhenko, Max Ophüls, Luis Buñuel. . . .

“Isn’t he the fellow who sliced the woman’s eye?—I remember seeing that in college!” That is correct. I feel now that Buñuel is as great a movie director as Renoir—and his credits go from Un Chien Andalou (the one with the eye), through Los Olvidados, Él, Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel, Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire. This is a great record, even if, by temperament, Buñuel was less comfortable or humanistic than Renoir. And I fear that Buñuel is being forgotten, just as I believe the evolution in movie appreciation of the 1960s and 1970s (in which Dwight Macdonald was a significant figure) is waning. So those people at the dinner party know Hitchcock and Orson Welles, but the memory is fading for Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, and many others.

This is a curious thing, for the films made by these directors have never been as available as they are now. We are living in an age of video coverage, though it may not last forever. There are cinephiles now who have many of the films by Renoir and Buñuel on their shelves, like books. The academic process can easily draw on the same library. But for the ordinary person alerted to Buñuel and curious about what I am saying—what can you do? Well, Netflix has an excellent range of Buñuel pictures and I hope it will last. But they have an understandable business plan: they offer the titles that customers seek. And so there is a pressure for them to keep boxed sets from recent TV series and to neglect older and foreign films.

Not long ago there were video stores in which you could browse among the shelves, discovering films you had heard of and always meant to try. Most of those stores are history. In San Francis- co a shop called Le Video remains. Now it is experiencing hard times and it is closing for a reorganization involving a local bookstore. I hope it will re-open, with its old range of titles. But who can be sure? Supply rewards demand—what else is it to do? When people no longer know what to ask for, some films will go out of stock.

This is not written in anger or indignation. Cinephilia is well catered to now— so long as it is prepared to overlook the memory of movies as a screen-projected film and maybe two thousand people watching. That was the context that made moviegoing not just important but essential. So are movies settling back into the status occupied by novels? That’s possible, and we can be comfortable with it. But consider this possibility: that movies once were based on an inspiring contract, according to which “everyone” could see and be moved by some marvel all at once. That was the nature of a mass medium, and it went beyond entertainment, art, or culture. It was a hope for preserving our perilous existence and sharing experience.