Life in Art…It Is All A GRAND ILLUSION
4 May 2014
In art, there is life. This sentiment may seem simple, even overused, yet many miss the opportunities to discover all the life in art. For example, and speaking figuratively, art is glass—vulnerable, sharp, yet translucent. People who approach art step back or step in, observe, even reflect on life. Narrative film, which is one type of art, allows such an experience for its viewers, the opportunity to enter a darkened space and witness life through a lens. Some see only the narrative, or the entertainment; others see the statement(s) about life, the message(s) about people, the world, or the great mysteries of being. The latter seers, the ones who discover life in art, tend to come out the other side awakened or reflective. And, the better the art, in this case narrative film, the more likely the discovery will breed new-found understanding, realizations, and awareness about life. Jean Renoir’s 1937 film, Grand Illusion, co-written by Charles Spaak, is exactly this type of well-made art, a glass through which viewers make discoveries about life and leave the art with new or deepened understandings of themselves, others, and the world they live in.
Imagine Europe in 1937. Hitler and the Nazi Party are in control and their power is growing. Hate, unrest, fear, and uncertainty are in power. This is the historical moment Jean Renoir lives in when Grand Illusion is made and released. Considering the increasing danger in Europe and the undeniable movement toward a second great war, this is not the safest moment to make an anti-war film, particularly one that highlights equality among all people. In 1937, life in Europe inches closer to segregation and classification, the antithesis of equality. Yet, for Jean Renoir, this was exactly the moment for Grand Illusion.
If one were to surmise a purpose for Grand Illusion, beyond merely entertainment, it could be argued the film exists to consistently and combatively challenge social stereotypes and prejudices that often ignite conflict, fuel hatred, and taint humanity by reminding viewers of how similar humans from all walks of life actually are. Set in World War I, and following a French, middle-class lieutenant (Jean Gabin) who is captured by the Germans, Grand Illusion weaves people from two genders, multiple ethnicities, and various classes together, each time trying to show the overall insignificance of these social categories, and, to paraphrase what one character says in the end, these boundaries that exist between people are not natural, they are man-made.
To begin, during his imprisonment by the Germans, Maréchal waits and talks with fellow POWs. In the scene is a black soldier, one of the POWs. The POWs, Maréchal included, accept this black soldier as one of them, yet do not speak to him or pay attention to his attempted conversation. Clearly, Renoir cast this actor specifically, and features him predominantly in several shots during this scene; viewers are meant to see this black soldier and note his presence. Renoir also calls subtle attention to this soldier being ignored, which suggests the other soldiers may feel he is lesser. Considering film as art, as a glass through which viewers can observe life, the audience sees exactly what racism looks like. To some, in 1937, this ignorance may be unnoticed; however, racial ignorance is not unnoticed by Renoir, and his inclusion of this black soldier is an attempt to draw viewers’ attention to a problem plaguing us. All these POWs are the same: same clothes, same imprisonment, same fear and frustration. In this circumstance, how does one’s skin color change the experience of being a POW? According to Grand Illusion, it does not. This is a bold and claim for Renoir to make, particularly at this exact historical moment.
Yet, even more overt than the black solder, and perhaps even more dangerous, considering the 1930’s rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party, is the statements made in Grand Illusion about Jews and anti-Semitism. While imprisoned, Maréchal meets Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a rich, generous Jew who is also being held as a POW. The two are separated for a time, but daringly escape their captures together. While on their wearisome path to freedom through the fields, valleys, and wilderness of Germany, toward the sanctuary of Switzerland, Rosenthal slips and hurts his foot, slowing him down, frustrating Maréchal who wants to move faster. At one point, the two argue, Maréchal telling Rosenthal “I could never stomach Jews.” Rosenthal, sitting to rest, fires back by pushing his fellow escapee away and claiming joy to be free of Maréchal, so much joy he must sing. Although bombastic to start, Rosenthal’s song fades off as he grimly realizes he is now on his own, separated from his friend and fellow POW and without the prospect of survival. Just then, Maréchal returns. With little spoken, Maréchal helps Rosenthal up and the two continue their tiresome and dangerous journey to Switzerland together.
Anti-Semitism was already breeding in Europe during this time, and Renoir uses these characters to combat the hate-filled, pro-segregation ideology sweeping Europe. By having Maréchal tell Rosenthal “I could never stomach Jews,” Renoir pinpoints the stereotype; calling out the dangerous, oppressive mentality of the time. Yet, the vile statement clearly does not reflect Maréchal’s true sentiments. By returning to help Rosenthal, and continuing their escape together, Maréchal communicates his love and loyalty to his fellow POW and friend. In this scene, Renoir communicates that prejudice exists, but, if people want to survive, it must be overcome. Additionally, and making the same point as the previous example with the black soldier, Maréchal and Rosenthal have the same human needs in their circumstance: shelter, food, water, and sleep; ethnicity has no effect on what makes people human, therefore, according to this reading of the film, it should not be used as categorization to divide friends and neighbors.
And so, life, specifically the lives of people in 1937, is in the art, Grand Illusion, and the art offers a unique, inspired way to reflect and understand the world. On one hand, the film is entertainment, yet, looking at it with more profound resonance, the film is a glass through which people are meant to see their lives, a lens to see and reflect on what is happening around them. Upon its release in the late 1930s, the film clearly addressed impending war in Europe, yet, even today, almost 80 years later, the film still serves as a reminder that when social and political tensions flare, as they always have and always will, all people are equal. Differentiated, yes, but, essentially, all the same.