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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Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war