It’s only in coming back to The Grand Illusion a couple months after that initial viewing, which took place in proper sequence among others on the List, that I feel as though I’ve got a pretty solid sense of its greatness. In fact, I feel like I can look at Renoir’s two earlier movies from the List, Boudu Saved from Drowning and A Day in the Coutnry, and can finally see the distinctive strengths that I’d originally had such a hard time finding. And mostly I think it’s because I’ve seen his 1939 masterpiece as well, The Rules of the Game, and it gave me a proper lens through which to look at his work.
The only really luminous bit of greatness I felt I could see in Grand Illusion, first time around, was the performance of Erich von Stroheim, who here plays a back-braced and badly-burned officer of the German Imperial Army. He presides over the high-security POW camp to which our captured French heroes are sent, halfway into the film, after a botched effort at escaping the milder camp to which they’d been sent after being captured. I was skeptical of Stroheim’s genius as it was professed in all the ancillary research I was doing to inform my assessment of his two directorial efforts that came up at the beginning of the List: Foolish Wives and Greed. The latter was first achieved as a ~nine-hour opus before it was cut by the studio into a more commercial two-hour run, and it’s often called the “holy grail of cinema.” Not because it’s limb-flailingly good (although it’s definitely amazing) but because it’s got that air of “what could have been.” Stories vary on whether that first cut, which Stroheim screened at a small private gathering, was five or seven or nine hours long. I read in some place that all in attendance were made a little uncomfortable by the militant rigidity with which he sat through it, watching them watch.
You can see some of that militancy here, in his small but big-hearted performance: he’s patient, he’s deferential to his adversaries of equal rank, then he’ll turn around and be ruthlessly critical and authoritarian with his subordinates. His woundedness, physical and emotional, from some unspecified event in battle that’s now relegated him to the role of a bureaucrat, as he puts it in a moving monologue, “a policeman,” is the spectacle of his performance. He speaks softly among those of equal rank, reveals himself. It’s mesmerizing.
The only other things that really stood out to me in that first viewing of Grand Illusion, when I was kinda just bowing to the idea that it’s a masterpiece because that’s what I was told, were how the whites and blacks that sculpt every scene are lit so as to appear whiter and blacker than they do in other movies of the era. And also how handsome Jean Gabin is. But yeah, the thing with the whites and blacks: this appears to be a motif in Renoir’s movies. Shit looks stark. Maybe it’s too heavily lit?
What I realize now is that this story of French soldiers trying to escape is – like Boudu Saved from Drowning and Rules of the Game and A Day in the Country – a story of manners, and of people trying to be dignified in the most urgent, abject, human moments of life. And isn’t that kind of what cinema’s largely about: appearances?
I’m sure there are other deep things to it, but I haven’t caught on. Renoir’s work is something I’ll probably contend with forever. Maybe I’ll take another look at the end of the Project, see if I’ve got a more refined eye for it.