A.O. Scott: Jean Renoir’s Timely Lessons for Europe
A.O. Scott is a film critic for the NYT.
“GRAND ILLUSION” had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 1937, and it has been around ever since, by enduring consensus one of the greatest films ever made. It is true that Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief and cultural arbiter, was not a fan, but Mussolini, patron of the festival and Europe’s leading fascist cinephile, kept a print in his personal collection. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “all the democracies in the world must see this film,” which is still sound advice. The nations that fall within that rubric may have grown in number since those days, but none of those democracies, old or new, is so secure as to be immune to the lessons of Jean Renoir’s great and piercing antiwar comedy.
Which is not to say that “Grand Illusion” is didactic, though it is, like much of the art of its era, unapologetic about its social concerns and political implications. It survives partly as a document of those volatile times, and of the idealism that persisted through them even as history prepared a new, unimaginable round of horrors. Seventy-five years on, Europe is far from a state of war, but in light of its current crisis — which is not only economic and political, but also, once again, a crisis of identity — Renoir’s film is still news.
In France the late 1930s were the years of the Popular Front, an attempt by the left to counter the rise of fascism and overcome its own tendencies toward sectarianism and orthodoxy. The political face of the front was Léon Blum, a moderate Jewish Socialist whose two truncated, frustrating terms as prime minister coincided with the production and release of Renoir’s film. It is hardly incidental that the friendship at the heart of “Grand Illusion” — the alliance that carries the germ of its political hope — is between Lieutenant Maréchal, a proudly working-class Parisian played by Jean Gabin, and Rosenthal, an assimilated, wealthy French Jew played by Marcel Dalio. The action takes place during World War I (in which Renoir had served as a pilot), when the Dreyfus Affair was still a recent memory, but it has an eye on contemporary anti-Semitism and labor militancy as well as a subtle, anxious premonition of global conflicts to come....
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