The caption for a photo with a Style article yesterday about Jean Renoir's 1937 film "Grand Illusion" incorrectly identified the actors shown. They are Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay. (Published 01/08/2000)
It is magnificent, a French officer said in 1856, watching the Light Brigade throw itself into the Russian guns, but it isn't war. What it is, he might have added, is a grand illusion.
That illusion--that war is some kind of theater of aristocratic style, complete with quips, fearlessness, beautiful uniforms and upper lips so stiff they could be made of three-inch armor--got its most chilling rebuke in Jean Renoir's 1937 "Grand Illusion," a restored version of which moves into the American Film Institute's National Film Center today.
Renoir understood what no other "anti-war" director before or since has quite gotten (though David Lean got close in "The Bridge on the River Kwai"), which is that while war is unkind to all living things, it's so spectacular that it almost always makes for visually dynamic movies. Its spectacle is the source of its charisma.
So "Grand Illusion" removes the spectacle from war: It features no battle scenes, no explosions, no ruined landscapes, no sentimental heroism, but instead reduces the phenomenon to its ideas and plays them out in intimate human terms.
The scene is a German POW camp for French aviators in 1916. There, the aristocratic Prussian von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) attempts to continue the ways of the professional, though his back has been broken and his body roasted in the burning of his airplane. Ironically, his soul brother in this isn't German, but one of his prisoners, the French staff officer de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay). For the record, these are two of the greatest film performances in history.
The movie watches as these men play the melancholy roles that their caste obligates them to, even as the war moves on, becoming some new thing while less self-conscious men (Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Gaston Modot) concentrate on simpler issues, like survival and escape.
The movie is a kind of elegy for an old order as it passeth away. The Maxim machine gun made noblesse oblige somewhat irrelevant as it fired its 500 rounds a minute and denuded the world not only of trees but also of honor. Neither von Rauffenstein nor de Boeldieu gets that; they just play the cards as they are dealt, toward the inevitable pointless death.
Grand Illusion (111 minutes, at the American Film Institute's National Film Center at the Kennedy Center through Thursday) is not rated. For ticket information, call 202-785-4600.
CAPTION: Jean Gabin, left, and Erich von Stroheim in Jean Renoir's classic 1937 anti-war film "Grand Illusion."