La Grande Illusion (1937)
Director: Jean Renoir
This film is one of the examples of poetic realism included in the 1001 Films book. While this movement is seen as being particularly French and dating from the 1930s and 40s, I was reminded of All Quiet on the Western Front, an American film from 1930. Poetic realism is often about characters facing death in some form or another, who are filled with bitterness and pain that costs them a chance at love. While All Quiet doesn't have the love story in its film, the bitterness and sadness of the characters is there, as is the painful beauty of certain moments between people that can't quite overcome the situation.
I felt the two films were comparable partly because of their context; the First World War. In Renoir's film, we follow two men as they move from prisoner of war camp to prisoner of war camp, as their attempted escapes are thwarted. The film doesn't move the way you think. The characters do things that bring about no real resolution; in the first camp they begin building an escape tunnel, but are moved on before they use it. They try to tell the new prisoners, but they (and we) never know if it was used.
Renoir clearly inherited his father's artist genes; the shots are subtly but beautifully composed, with unintrusive editing, which adds to the sadness of the tone, as though the camera itself lingers of the events with a sigh of pain. The acting is very good from everyone, and I was interested to see Erich von Stroheim as the sympathetic German von Rauffenstein, who befriends the equally refined Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay). Class and nationality are interminged throughout the film, as Jean Gabin's more working-class Marechal and de Boeldieu never become friends, though they spend much of the film together.
As my first taste of poetic realism, I thought Renoir's La Grande Illusion was a quiet and beautiful film about war's effect on man's sense of society. Whether the illusion referred to in the title is the idea of human connection, happiness, war or 'civilised' society itself will require another viewing by me.