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Bazin on The Grand Illusion

Page history last edited by Nykki Montano 14 years, 4 months ago

André Bazin's writing on The Grand Illusion is excerpted from his larger work focused specifically on its director, Jean Renoir. A celebrated French film critic and film theorist, Bazin comments on various aspects of Renoir's film, discussing the representation of class, his use of the camera, possible meanings of the film's title, and the important realism in The Grand Illusion. The beginning of the chapter summarizes the plot with minor comments by Bazin, and he briefly recounts the history of the film before diving into interpretation.


A Changing Film


Bazin tells an interesting history of The Grand Illusion upon its completion: the version seen from 1946 until a newly edited version in 1958 had been manipulated by the second world war; it wasn't until negatives seized by the Germans were recovered by Americans that Renoir could release his film as he had originally intended (some "love scenes" between Maréchel and Elsa had been removed as well as references to Rosenthal's race) (Bazin, 60-1). Though Bazin does not make this conjecture, it seems as though Renoir's ambiguous title described it's own history, perhaps referencing the illusion of art as holy and untouchable. Bazin also discusses Renoir's relationship with Erich von Stroheim, an actor banished from Hollywood at the time whom Renoir greatly admired. Bazin states that their collaboration on the film not only further developed the character of von Rauffenstein, but had a profound effect on "the theme of aristocracy made possible through the interplay between the French captain and the German commandant" (61).




Bazin first discusses the realism of The Grand Illusion, attributing the film's success to Renoir's attempts to make a film as realistic as possible. The first major aspect of this realism is the diversity of language present in the film, with actors constantly switching between French, German, and English. Renoir focused on the differences among these very similar looking characters, and often important scenes hinged on the debilitating lack of languages on some characters (Maréchal's helping words to an Englishman, Maréchal and Elsa's romance, etc). Language even becomes an aspect of class during the film, when von Rauffenstein and Boildeau converse in English rather than French or German, using it as a language of the aristocracy, not understood by simple soldiers and characrters like Rosenthal or Maréchal.


Bazin discusses character relations as an important part of Renoir's careful attention to realism. Bazin comments that "the German guards, simple soldiers, noncommissioned officers, and officers are drawn with stunning verisimilitude," exhibiting a level of awe at Renoir's attention to details of relationship even between extras. Minor interactions between characters like the prisoners and the guard Arthur help enhance this feeling of reality within the film.


What is the Grand Illusion?


I think that the most imporatant part of Bazin's essay is his exploration of the ambiguous title given to The Grand Illusion. Renoir's title can very easily apply to many different themes and scenes from the film. As Bazin states, the meanings are many but helpful: "the illusion of sexuality fostered by the soldiers in women's costumes, the illusion of love in Maréchal's improbable and probably ill-fated romance with the farm woman, the illusion of liberty behind every attempt to escape, the illusion of approaching peace. But the illusions are more beneficial than harmful: they help the men to overcome their trials and give them the courage to persevere" (64). Bazin elaborates on the complexity of illusion in the film and interprets the cynical illusions of things like friendship and fraternity as vitally necessary to mankind in overcoming the absurd illusion of hatred that divides men who only separate themselves by false boundaries of invisible country lines and classes. Bazin touches finally on a point Renoir has made in many interviews, that there is a theme "that men are less separated by the vertical barriers of nationalism than by the horizontal cleavages of culture, race, class, profesion, etc." and that these themes come together to classify this film as political, though Bazin views it as very nonpartisan through Renoir's style of focusing on ideals and truths rather than political morales (65).

Comments (1)

Sean Desilets said

at 10:35 pm on Sep 30, 2009

* Could imagine even more discussion of the title either here or on the _Grand Illusion_ page
* This is a fantastic summary of the article. I could imagine a bit more on the realism question--which is really Bazin's thing
* Could definitely do some more work on the film's politics--in either place

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