La Grande Illusion (1937)

La Grande Illusion (1937) is a film about class issues, that doesn't take sides. 

It's an intreresting take, and pretty unusual when you think about it. But La Grande Illusion doesn't present nor admit to a bias and sees everybody as sympathetic, including the tragic aristocrats at the heart of the problems.

La Grande Illusion does at the same pretend to a strange vision of trench warfare.  In the first scene Jean Gabin is in his shoddily built mess, which has a well-stocked bar and waiter.  

The very next scene shows the actor Eric Von Stroheim and the Germans in their own similarly shack-like officers' mess, with an even better bar, again with its own proud barkeep.

Maybe that was what it was like.  I don't know, but the German bar certainly seems to have a hell of a lot of liquor as well as a cocktail shaker.

Either way it all gets a bit rougher, and maybe even more realist, as the action heads into a First World War prisoner of war camp for French and British.

Although viewers will swear that nothing whatsoever happens for the first half an hour of La Grande Illusion (they arrive at camp - start digging a tunnel) things really speed up after the remarkable set piece, which is a transvestite theatre show culminating in La Marseillaise.

La Grande Illusion is not only a strong precursor to the film noir movement, with its poetically realised charcaters, and touching and revelatory storytelling. It features as assistant director Jacques Becker, who went on to make many of his own films, but two notable and certain noirs in Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1956) and Le Trou (1960).

Also in La Grande Illusion, is a meaty acting role for Eric von Stroheim who is instantly recognisable as being 'Max' in Sunset Boulevard.

All of that now said, what is La Grande Illusion doing featuring on a film noir website? It wasn't made in the right country and at the right time, and doesn't have any hats, hoods, cigarette smoke, dark corners and paranoia. So what's the bunk?

The link is poetic realism, without which there would be no noir. Communism may not have been everybody's cup of tea, and that may remain the case, but there is something to be said for the slowly rising awareness of class issues, being dealt with poetically by filmmakers, as opposed to violently, by politicians.

In Grande Illusion Gabin plays perhaps an entirely hopeful symbol of the victorious proletariat and in the movie, we see through his character, the disintegration of the old aristocratically tiered world, and the rebuilding of a new one after the violent imbalances of World War I.

Here is the working class, heroically and poetically portrayed, with humanity, divided in one direction by borders and in another by social class.  

The movie argues that the war shattered these distinctions, and so the era of gentlemanly combat and glorious deaths, is dead. The new world order, unified in suffering and also success was rising and out of this pain would come a new type of freedom, which would elevate the lower classes and banish the arbitrary divisions that had forever damaged humankind's chances.

Director Jean Renoir, said in his 1974 biography, My Life and My Films:

"If a French farmer should find himself dining at the same table as a French financier, those two Frenchmen would have nothing to say to each other, each being unconcerned with the other's interests. But if a French farmer meets a Chinese farmer they will find any amount to talk about. This theme of the bringing together of men through their callings and common interests has haunted me all my life and does so still. It is the theme of 'La Grande Illusion' and it is present, more or less, in all my works."

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