To End All Wars 

After 63 years Jean Renoir's antiwar masterpiece is still relevant

After 63 years Jean Renoir's antiwar masterpiece is still relevant

Grand Illusion

dir. Jean Renoir

NR, 120 min.

Starts Friday at the Belcourt Theatre

Over the years, the phrase “antiwar film” has come to represent heavy-handed polemics and battering-ram symbolism. A movie like Saving Private Ryan pounds the audience with shells and blood, purportedly to convey the insanity of warfare; in the process, it comes across not so much as antiwar as anti-losing. By comparison, Jean Renoir’s 1937 film Grand Illusion, which screens this week at the Belcourt in a recently struck print, seems almost quaintly reserved. Set in World War I, the war to end all wars, it concerns two French officers, the aristocratic de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and the plebeian Maréchal (Jean Gabin), captured in 1916 and sent to a German P.O.W. camp. The commandant, von Rauffelstein (Erich von Stroheim), senses an immediate kinship with his opposite number, de Boeldieu: Their manners, their dress, even their formal use of English bind them to a rarefied class.

Eighteen months pass. After several escape attempts, the French officers are dispatched to another camp—presided over, once again, by von Rauffelstein, who brightens to see de Boeldieu still alive. The upper-crust French officer is drawn more naturally to the German aristocrat than to his own blue-collar countrymen, and even after 18 months in close quarters, de Boeldieu and Maréchal still address each other with the formal “vous.” (The movie expresses Renoir’s oft-cited belief that society organizes along horizontal levels of class rather than vertical levels of nationality.) But de Boeldieu nonetheless believes there are principles greater than his own class prejudices and preferences. And he’s willing to sacrifice himself for them.

Seen in light of the increasingly brutal, impersonal warfare (and war films) of the last century, Grand Illusion’s portrayal of P.O.W. internment is positively genteel. The prisoners receive packages and even put on a talent show; the French officers dine on tinned delicacies provided by a well-off comrade (Marcel Dalio). It should probably be pointed out that Grand Illusion’s humane characterization of the German captors predates World War II. You need only compare Renoir’s Germans with the ignoble buffoons in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 for a cold slap of postwar cynicism. Renoir later said something to the effect that he still considered Germans human beings, despite the Nazis’ best efforts.

Here, though, he grants both sides equal humanity: Indeed, the complicated opening shots that introduce the Frenchmen and the Germans are almost mirror images. And the emphasis on manners and gentlemanly conduct only drives home Renoir’s sad truth: There can be no such thing as a civilized war. In different circumstances, de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein would meet as friends. Yet despite their mutual regard and civility, when the time comes, one will choose to put a bullet in the other. Grand Illusion is in essence the story of two loves that encapsulate man’s fate: one doomed by war (de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein), and one that extends the promise of peace (the escaped Maréchal’s romance with a German widow, played by Dita Parlo).

Renoir’s film about the folly of war was almost a casualty of war itself. During World War II, Goebbels branded (or honored) the film as “Cinematic Public Enemy Number One.” As Stuart Klawans wrote in The Nation, the Nazis confiscated prints of Grand Illusion on sight; for years the original camera negative was thought destroyed during an Allied air raid on Paris in 1942. Ironically, Klawans reported, the negative was saved by a Nazi officer in occupied Paris, Dr. Frank Hensel, who shipped it and other films to the Reichsfilmarchiv vaults in Berlin for safekeeping. The vaults happened to be in the Russian sector of Berlin, and the negative was sent to Moscow after the war. Through a film exchange in the mid-1960s, it ended up in France’s Cinémathèque de Toulouse. But no one thought to examine the film cans until almost 30 years later. The print showing at the Belcourt has been struck from that negative—and as Klawans wrote last year, it’s crisper than any print of Grand Illusion that’s been seen in 62 years.

It may seem ridiculous to spend this much time urging people to see what, by all reckonings, is one of the greatest movies ever made. But if it were made today, Renoir’s quiet appeal to humanity would possibly never be heard by an audience as comparatively wide as the one that greeted it in the 1930s—not above the din of commercialized bloodshed and the commonplace cheapening of human life. For one thing, when it was released, foreign films hadn’t yet been ghettoized. Grand Illusion was the first foreign film nominated for Best Picture. Few have followed.

Yet Renoir himself held few grand illusions about his film’s lasting effect. Asked years after Grand Illusion how much impact antiwar films could have, according to critic Danny Peary, Renoir said, “In 1936 I made a picture called La Grande Illusion in which I tried to express all my deep feelings for the cause of peace. This film was very successful. Three years later the war broke out. That is the only answer I can find....” True, Grand Illusion did not end all wars. But it’s man’s fault for not living up to Jean Renoir’s gentlest hopes.

—Jim Ridley

Hackwork

In her classic essay “Movies on TV,” Pauline Kael wrote about the fundamental problem of approaching decades-old popular art from a modern perspective. Because there’s no way for, say, a 30-year-old moviegoer in the year 2000 to get inside the head of a 30-year-old moviegoer in the year 1950, the contemporary man has a natural tendency to think of his ancestor as naive, quaint, and maybe even a little dumb. But Kael points out that the scenes and dialogue that we find corny in old movies were pretty much always corny—audiences were as hip to them then as we are now, and sometimes the filmmakers even meant the stiffness to be ironic. Which makes one wonder: While we watch The Simpsons make fun of genre conventions today, will our great-grandchildren someday watch the same episodes and not get the joke? Will they think that The Simpsons is itself a creaky sitcom, rather than an ingenious spoof of one?

I thought about this issue while watching the oddity that is the Wayans Brothers’ Scary Movie. Director Keenen Ivory Wayans’ comedy (which was written in part by its stars, his brothers Shawn and Marlon) is meant to be an Airplane-style parody of recent teen slasher flicks—especially Scream, which was itself meant to be a winking homage to the horror films of the previous decade. The only reason why Scary Movie is at all viable is because the success of Scream inspired a revival of high-school shockers with much less self-awareness than the 1996 blockbuster. But still—a tongue-in-cheek riff on a movie that was itself tongue-in-cheek? We’re getting into a kind of weird area here.

It gets weirder. Scary Movie starts out as a sarcastic redo of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer—similar in tone to Keenen’s blaxploitation comedy I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, or Shawn and Marlon’s Don’t Be a Menace—but after a few minutes, it becomes apparent that the Wayans Brothers don’t have much clever or revelatory to say about the style or content of the ‘90s horror genre. Instead, they settle for presenting near-verbatim restagings of scenes from their source material, with outrageously raunchy dialogue and action inserted almost randomly. The result is like listening to a couple of 12-year-old boys sit around and make up dirty lyrics to Top 40 songs; it’s more disturbing than funny.

This is easily the most sexually explicit movie ever to receive an “R” rating from the MPAA. It’s time for the estate of Stanley Kubrick to resubmit Eyes Wide Shut—nothing in the orgy scene of the late director’s censored masterpiece could be less suitable than Scary Movie’s thicket of pubic hair, saggy scrotum, head impaled by an erect penis, or blast of semen that splatters a woman against the ceiling. It’s a tricky business when critics write negatively about politically incorrect humor—it makes us seem too much like priggish spoilsports—so I’ll just say this and get out before I get clobbered: The Wayans brothers have some serious issues with women, and even though horror movies have always fetishized the butchery of the female form, this movie treats femininity with outright revulsion. And their disgust is not itself an ironic comment...it’s just nasty.

It’s possible for gross-out comedy to be humane. Both There’s Something About Mary and American Pie, whatever their flaws, at least dealt sympathetically with the discomfort we sometimes feel in our own oozing bodies. Scary Movie is stupid and savage, and will probably make a gazillion dollars because every preteen boy in the country is going to be wide-eyed when his friends describe just how dirty the movie really is. Adults, though—those of us who have had mature relationships with the opposite sex—should be forewarned that there’s nothing there to engage us. Horror fans will be disappointed too, since the jokes have little to do with their chosen genre.

The real question is, what will teenagers think of Scary Movie 50 years from now? Smut and titters aside, will the filmgoer of 2050 understand what the film is making fun of—especially the incongruous and witless pokes at The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, and The Matrix—or will they think it’s just an especially violent sex comedy? The answer is that pictures like Scary Movie are not made for the ages; they’re meant to be gotten and then forgotten. That they sometimes survive anyway, and make unintended comments on our current culture...that’s really scary.

—Noel Murray

Life during wartime

Don’t let a swift, funny, deeply affecting movie called West Beirut escape without notice. An autobiographical first feature by writer-director Ziad Doueiri, an assistant cameraman on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, West Beirut takes place in 1975 Beirut, just as civil war between Christians and Muslims is splitting the city in half. Yet for teenage Tarek, the fighting is a backdrop to more pressing concerns—girls, American pop singles, taking rolls of Super 8 film with his fast-talking buddy Omar. Using fleet camerawork, knockabout humor, and a haunting Stewart Copeland score, Doueiri manages a precarious balancing act between the boys’ teenage kicks and the growing tensions of the war.

When the violence escalates, and Tarek and Omar’s movements are suddenly restricted, Doueiri turns Beirut into a maze of blocked passages and hidden dangers. Adding immeasurably to the movie’s impact are the performances the director gets from a nonprofessional cast—especially his brother Rami as Tarek and Mohamad Chamas as Omar, who together form a profane, mischievous comedy team. By showing how the fighting gradually stifles their spirit, West Beirut brings the conflict in Lebanon as close to home as the boys’ proudly displayed posters of ABBA and Airport 1975. West Beirut opens Friday at the Belcourt; it’s a fitting companion to Grand Illusion on the theater’s other screen, as a portrait of war’s destructive capabilities beyond bullets and bombs.

—Jim Ridley

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