The idea of reviewing the Criterion Collection by spine numbers is a daunting task. It’s just not that these films are generally complicated viewing endeavors, or that the collection is large enough to pack a walk in closet; although all of this was considered before I started my journey, the ultimate yoke was, and still is, the task of translating the story of Film that Criterion has been telling since 1984, which was an apt year for the company to start. So, with all due respect, here I go.
If you’re going to start a collection of “important, classic and contemporary films,” starting with Renoir’s La Grande Illusion is a brilliant choice; not just because Renoir was voted the fourth greatest director of all time by Sight and Sound magazine, but also because La Grande Illusion may be the most important film within the ever populated war genre.
La Grande Illusion, on a pedestrian level, is about escape, and on a meta level, about escapism. Renoir himself served during WWI, and after sustaining a leg injury, discovered the magic of cinema during his recovery period. So it’s natural that the soldiers in La Grande Illusion find escape through art; whether it be books or music or tall tales of women in short skirts. It’s clear that Renoir draws a point to humanize every soldier in the film through passion. He creates a connecting line for every character. To be clear, there is no true antagonist of the film as one of the main criticisms drawn by Renoir is that war is ultimately futile.
Not only is the vision clear, but it’s poignant, especially today. Within today’s society, we are continually berated with images of silent villains committing evil acts, but we never really consider the motivation. As some will tell you, certain terrorist groups are pure evil, and while I do not condone their actions, there is much more to the story. Renoir’s La Grande Illusion only reminds me that the hidden atrocity of war is the blind killing of a shadowed enemy. In fact, the climax of the film focuses heavily on this subject. It criticizes those who kill without understanding. We often forget that we’re all human, and it’s a tragedy that things such as patriotism, a concept drawn out by invisible borders, propagates the message that murder for country is okay.
Don’t get me completely wrong. Again, I do not condone acts of terrorism. I am just stating that murder without at least some idea of what one is doing is wrong. So, in the majority of cases that involve war, both sides share the blame.
La Grande Illusion also greatly criticizes the once predominant class system of the aristocratic era. Ken Follett’s book about WWI was titled Fall of Giants. It’s partly due to the changing economic state after WWI, but also due to the disappearing class system that occurred after WWI. I feel as though Follett and Renoir would have a great deal to talk about. I also feel that Renoir would be greatly disappointed in today’s world. The class system feels like an archaic thing of the past, but the reality is vastly different from the illusion we hold today. The truth is, the class system still exists. It has just been transported by 90 years of history, and is sitting on the doorstep of men and women. Politics have become a perverted system of nepotism and favor. CEO’s play revolving chairs. And truly making it in today’s age is a game of name dropping and under handed deals. What it creates is a society that is not only carrying the weight of a marginalized population, but also a society that is ruled by a percentage of the population determined to pit the country against its self in a twisted cage match.
In one of the final scenes of La Grande Illusion an officer of aristocratic birth sacrifices himself for two lower class soldiers in the ultimate testament to a changing world; one which includes the men and women of lower birth rite in the same count as those born to a silver spoon. It’s a show of good will, and speaks to the sad truth that without acceptance and requisition of the upper class, the lower class will never be allowed in. And it’s a lesson we’ve forgotten.
Ultimately La Grande Illusion is significant. I could discuss the great “musical” numbers, the progressive style of film making, the gray politics, or the choice of vilifying the situation over the oh so common “bad guy.” But I feel as though Renoir’s work, especially this one, is of greater importance because of how it speaks to today; it presents a message of peace through a revolution that starts at the top. Watch it. It’s a hard, but noble truth.