Gilbey on Film: Five things I love about La Grande Illusion

Here's why you need to see Jean Renoir's 1938 classic.

La Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir’s sublime 1938 masterpiece about spirit, class and camaraderie in a German POW camp in the First World War, is out in cinemas now in a restored print; it reaches DVD on 23 April. This is a movie that does not want for admirers. Woody Allen counts it as one of his eight favourite films (in case you’re curious, the others are: Bicycle Thieves, The 400 Blows, The Hill, Rashomon, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and a second Renoir, The Rules of the Game). The late Pauline Kael, interviewed in May 2000 by the director Michael Almereyda for a still-unmade film essay about Renoir, said:

The first Renoir picture I ever saw was Grand Illusion, which was probably the greatest picture I’d ever seen. I was in San Francisco, and it didn’t play in art houses; it played in regular theatres and it got a huge response. It is a movie that people don’t have to be movie specialists to enjoy. I think that The Rules of the Game, which is certainly a great film, could never reach the wide audience that Grand Illusion did in the 1930s when I first saw it. It has an immediacy, and you understand everything in it, whereas The Rules of the Game has a kind of mad capriciousness; the pulse in The Rules of the Game is different—it isn’t as naturalistic—and Grand Illusion was simply a heavenly experience for people who hadn’t seen much in the way of European films. But even if we had, there was nothing comparable to it.

You can read the full text of this interview, which Almereyda planned to use as his documentary’s narration, in Projections 13 (Faber). But Kael is right: it’s one of those films that you can confidently show to a friend, prefacing it with the words “You will adore this” without fear of being contradicted.

In addition to its accessibility, here are a further Five Things I Love About La Grande Illusion:

Jean Gabin

Ahead of the forthcoming Jean Gabin season at the BFI Southbank, you can marvel here at the subtlety and strength of French cinema’s brute poet. As Lieutenant Maréchal, an unpretentious, working-class officer holed up in the POW camp, he had a way of bringing the simplicity and beauty of a sonnet to his every grunted line; his eyes sparkled in his rough-hewn mug like diamonds in a sack of spuds. From raucous humour and stir-crazy intensity through to the unembarrassed tenderness of the final scenes, Gabin was as dexterous as they come. I like the way Maréchal twice reaches for the sentimental during intimate conversations with a colleague or a lover, only to have his declaration cut short by the intended object of his compliment. That feels like a comment on all the softness beneath Gabin’s own sandpaper exterior.

The Framing

Any director wishing to frame a group of actors in a shot needs to look at Renoir in general, and La Grande Illusion in particular. Faces crowded in a window, men huddled together on an allotment to empty out surreptitiously the sacks of dirt from the previous evening’s tunnel-digging, or gathered around a costume box inspecting the delicate female clothing that is the closest any of them can get to an actual woman. All these scenes and shots demonstrate Renoir’s uncanny ability to frame action in a way that expresses his characters’ camaraderie while providing compositions upon which the eye can feast.

The Music

The urgent military tempo of Joseph Kosma’s main title music is echoed later in the film when Maréchal remarks of the sounds emanating from his captors’ parade ground: “It’s not the music that gets to you. It’s the marching feet.” Music is soaked into the picture. Musical instruments play a key part in the action—bugles, a harmonica, flutes and a cacophonous improvised orchestra of clanging pots, pans and plates. An early emotional peak comes when the prisoners burst into a rendition of “La Marseillaise” to celebrate the recapturing of Fort Douaumont by French forces.

A Great Director Before, As Well As Behind, The Camera

I have a personal love of directors who act, and one of the finest was Erich von Stroheim. To be fair, he was an actor before he was a filmmaker—but now that history knows him best as the director of Greed, it is understandable that we should think of acting as his supplementary career. He is devastatingly emphatic as Captain von Rauffenstein, who clings fast to the old certainties of class, breeding and etiquette as the world crumbles around him. Von Stroheim’s moments of greatness in La Grande Illusion are too numerous to list, so I will single out two. First, the way his whole upper body tilts backwards suddenly whenever he swigs his brandy. Second, the torture, played out on his agonised face, as he is called upon to fire on a man he considers a friend and an equal, albeit one fighting for the enemy.

The Final Shot (No Spoilers)

The most quietly magnificent use of snow in cinema.

"La Grande Illusion" is in cinemas now.

 

Jean Gabin, star of La Grande Illusion, in 1975. Photograph: Getty Images

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.