Close Up

9 June 2019: La Grande Illusion with Nick Macdonald


Following a programme of his anarchist essay films, we're thrilled to welcome Nick Macdonald to introduce Jean Renoir's anti-war masterpiece La Grande Illusion.

"(...) my relationship to La Grande Illusion has become almost a personal one. Perhaps some disclaimer is in order. I have (alternately or concurrently: loved this film with little reservation; been obsessed, if not nearly addicted; fallen out of touch and felt guilty, as if somehow disloyal; been surprised by its freshness, on getting reacquainted and finding new reasons to champion it again; lost faith, having seen films like La Regle du jeu and Citizen Kane (back when I was keeping score as to the greatest film ever); and turned fiercely protective, upset at any slight or what seemed a lack of proper respect. That last feeling is dangerous. The defense of a movie scorned can get out of hand. But I'm not so intoxicated now that I don't also want to be true to La Grande Illusion in trying to understand it clearly, faults and all.

Above everything, I feel in debt to La Grande Illusion – and to Jean Renoir. One possible attempt at repayment is to be honest and clear-headed about his film. And so I promised myself, starting this book, to recognize my bias. In that spirit, every sentence of my analysis has hovering over it, as guardian angels, qualifying phrases like "it seems to me" or "I think" or "in my opinion." They are implicit, as in any work of criticism. Periodically I make them visible to represent all the suppressed qualifiers that haunt these pages. Reader be warned. I hope my prejudice is fully enough acknowledged and rendered benign – if not, even more hopefully, overcome." – Nicholas Macdonald, In Search of La Grande Illusion

La Grande Illusion
Jean Renoir, 1937, 114 min
French, German, English & Russian with English subtitles

"In 1937, with Europe balanced dangerously on the edge of calamity, Jean Renoir looked back to World War I as the setting for one of his greatest works, the story of a group of French POWs determined to escape from a German prison camp. The group’s tireless effort inspires a solidarity that overrules even the deepest-seated class differences and, most remarkably, the fact that one of the French soldiers is Jewish. The poignant yet troubled bond of class that joins an imprisoned aristocrat – played with supercilious elegance by a dashing Pierre Fresnay – and his titled German jailer, serves both as Renoir’s elegy for European transnationalism and as his tribute to Erich von Stroheim, who reaches deep into his Teutonic imagination to invent perhaps his greatest role as an actor. Balancing poetic realism with a sober farewell to the ancien régime, Renoir brings a luminous pathos to the film’s politics and its fearful acknowledgement of the dark storms brewing once again in Europe." – Harvard Film Archive