Sunday, January 20, 2008

9. Film Review #1: Criterion Collection Spine #1: Jean Renoir: LA GRANDE ILLUSION (Grand Illusion) -- Part II

A detailed analysis and "things to look for" in the above film.

Books.

Enraged, they burn the crate. (This certainly hints at the revolutionary rage which will occur the very next year, if I have my dates right)...

However, this is also a plot point. As the German guards scurry to put out the fire and contain the carousing Russians, Maréchal and Rosenthal bemoan this missed opportunity. Boeldieu, however, is optimistic: "It was kind of them to hold a rehearsal for us."

Now, Renoir has been at pains to establish the similarities and parallels of Boeldieu and Rauffenstein. Suddenly, with a quietly modest determination, Boeldieu makes a momentous decision, which shows us that he is, in fact, quite different than Rauffenstein. He prepares a plan which will sacrifice himself so that his two comrades can escape.

Once again, a technique which is so common to both Renoir and Kurosawa: We are given the details about something in dialogue (or props: think Kurosawa in Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) (1954), with the maps of the village, which orient us to the locations which we are then taken to!) which we will later see in action.

Boeldieu’s plan is to buy some flutes (the “arts are allowed”) and stage a “concert.” He goes on to predict exactly how things will unfold, leaving out only the details of what he will do when the prisoners are assembled in the yard (as he predicts will happen after their second “concert”)...

Note how this scene is composed: Maréchal on the left, Boeldieu on the right, and taking up most of the center of the screen is a large cage with a squirrel in it. Lovely composition, and both Gabin and Fresnay have lots of cute business with the little fella in the cage!

FTB. Up on clock (4:45). The Germans are discussing how well they keep order. (Again, dialogue prepping upcoming action -- in this case, somewhat ironically!)

The flute concert begins. Confiscation.

Second concert.with pots and pans and singing and yelling. The prisoners are lined up in the yard, just as Boeldieu predicted. Rauffenstein enters. Roll call.

Finally, Boeldieu's name is called. No response. The guard calls his name several more times. We hear a flute. Maréchal and the others look up.

CUT to Rauffenstein, also looking up, trying to locate the source of the sound.

The camera PANS up the walls of the fortress, and finds Boeldieu sitting on a beam, playing his flute.

Kosma’s score kicks into full gear here (wonderful!)

All hell breaks loose. As the guards chase Boeldieu, we see Maréchal turn away from the group and disappear into the blackness. A few more scenes of the chase, and

CUT to Maréchal and Rosenthal tying their rope to the window. Rosenthal goes out first. Renoir allows us a bit of suspense by having Maréchal hide behind a post, as some guards walk by. He then makes it down, and the two men scurry off into the night. (Where did they go? Eight minutes of film time will pass before we will find out what happened to them.)

CUT to the guards, still, no sound. They are shining the big spotlight on Boeldieu. He taunts them with his flute. They begin to fire at him.

CUT to Rauffenstein, hearing the gunfire (which is increasing). He is alarmed.

He arrives on the scene and tries to reason with Boeldieu, including yet another snippet of English dialogue:

RAUFFENSTEIN: “Have you really gone insane?”.
BOELDIEU: “I am perfectly sane!“

After several warnings, he finally fires his pistol. Boeldieu falls. Guards arrive to inform Rauffenstein about the escape. Rauffenstein leaves, moving past the camera. (Notice the great rack-focus on the soldier who remains in the frame. It is very brief, but beautiful.)

CUT to an ECU of a box which contains religious paraphernalia (a crucifix, two candles, etc.). The camera stays very close on the man holding the box. We see that this man is wearing a crucifix and the German “iron cross.” He turns, as Renoir pulls the camera back a bit to reveal Rauffenstein and his aide. Rauffenstein, kneeling, gets up and the priest turns around to allow Rauffenstein to put on his coat (which has a Red Cross armband on it. Again, a lot of filmic information to absorb in a few seconds. Why a priest? Renoir forces us to quickly deduce how serious Boeldieu's injury must be).

The priest leaves, as a guard arrives to report on the search for the escaped prisoners. No success.

The pace is almost excruciatingly slow, helped by Kosma’s score. Rauffenstein walks slowly as the camera follows him, picks up the nurse, and finally Boeldieu, in bed with a 1916-vintage IV (intravenous tube).

A long conversation at the deathbed. It mirrors their previous talk about how they were becoming obsolete. At the end:

BOELDIEU: “For a commoner, dying in war is a tragedy. But for you and me, it’s a good way out.”

Rauffenstein gets up for a drink. Boeldieu dies. Rauffenstein closes his eyes and gets up and goes to the window, where he prunes a dead bloom from his plant.

CUT to a woman walking down a country road with a white horse.

Renoir can be devilish with his set-ups. Here he PANS 90 degrees right and stops -- we expect to see our heroes. We do not.

But momentarily, we hear Maréchal’s voice, “We should've avoided the road."

The camera now PANS downward and we find the two, huddled in the tall reeds.

There is a lovely AXIAL CUT right here, where the medium shot turns into a close one.

Again, a bit of clever presagement.

ROSENTHAL: “He’s gone.”
MARÉCHAL: “What? Didn’t you notice it was a woman?” (It is impossible to tell if this woman is Elsa or not, but the dialogue reverberates later when they are lucky enough to stumble upon a house with only a woman in it.)

Rosenthal has a bad leg and is in obvious distress, having trouble walking. Maréchal offers him his sugar ration. There is not much left. He asks Rosenthal to hold onto the bag with the sugar. Rosenthal catches on and realizes that Maréchal has been doing without, saving the food for Rosenthal.

ROSENTHAL: "You poor thing. You ate your buttons, too?"

Maréchal is returning Rosenthal's previous kindness when he shared his parcels.

Renoir takes his time with this part of the film. They don’t just show up at Elsa’s in 60 seconds.

A DISSOLVE to the two sleeping in ditch, huddled close together. As they wake up and trudge off, Renoir lingers on them, and the sad state of their appearance.

Here, I believe, is yet another scene which “inspired” a future filmmaker. And then, along comes yet another filmmaker, who had been inspired by the second filmmaker’s version, and he creates a third version in a film which becomes one of the most popular films of all time. Answers to follow.

The scene deserves to be transcribed, if only for purposes of comparing it to its son and granddaughter.

Another DISSOLVE. Rosenthal is resting, holding up his bad leg and balancing himself with a staff. They are walking along a muddy path. Maréchal stops walking and turns to him.

MARÉCHAL: “You coming or what?”
ROSENTHAL: (beginning to walk now) “I’m doing the best I can.”

They trudge along. Some spectacular scenery comes into view. Watch carefully! Rosenthal seems to appreciate it. For a brief moment, he turns his head right and left, as if to take in the beautiful setting, despite their misery!

MARÉCHAL: “You and your foot!”
ROSENTHAL: “It’s not my fault! I slipped.”

Immediately after this line, Renoir allows the two to pass the camera, and for a split-second (you can try to freeze-frame it), the entire frame is filled with the beautiful mountain and valley backdrop.

CUT to an empty frame (but only for a split second) of a different set-up, the sloping mountain just east (from our POV) of the previous shot...

The two men quickly enter the frame.

MARÉCHAL: “You slipped! That’s all I hear. If you get us caught, you’ll explain you slipped? We’re out of food. Might as well give up now.”
ROSENTHAL: “Gladly. I’ve had enough too.”
MARÉCHAL: “Had enough of me?“
ROSENTHAL: “Damn right! If you only knew how you make me sick!”
MARÉCHAL: “Well, the feeling’s mutual. You’re a dead weight. A ball and chain. I never could stomach Jews!
ROSENTHAL: “A bit late to realize that! Clear out, you’re dying to.”
MARÉCHAL: “You said it!”
ROSENTHAL: “Get lost! I’m sick of your ugly mug!”
MARÉCHAL: “I’m going! You’re on your own now! So long!” (Maréchal leaves.)
ROSENTHAL: “So long! Go ahead!” (He raises his staff above his head) “I’m so happy I could sing...” (singing) “There once was a little steamboat/Which had ne-ne-never gone to sea...”

CUT to Maréchal, continuing the song...

MARÉCHAL: “After five or six weeks at sea/The supplies were al-al-almost gone for good.” (He gradually stops singing, perhaps fully realizing the reality of the last line he had just sung)...(note the hold on the countryside as Gabin walks out of the frame again!)

CUT to Rosenthal, sitting, forlorn. He is centered perfectly in the frame. Suddenly, Maréchal appears, only the torso in the frame, as he is standing.

ROSENTHAL: “Why’d you come back?”

The camera pans up to include his Maréchal’s face.

MARÉCHAL: “Come on. Let’s go, fella.”

He tenderly helps Rosenthal get up and as they leave the frame, Renoir again holds on the backdrop for a second. This time he

DISSOLVES into yet another empty scenic backdrop. Maréchal is helping Rosenthal along, as they trudge up a steep hill.

***

ANSWERS: Kurosawa was obviously influenced by this scene when he was writing and filming Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (The Hidden Fortress) (1958). In this version (which, by the way, is truly a minor masterpiece in its own right!), perhaps Tahei (played by Minoru Chiaki) is Maréchal and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara) is Rosenthal. In any case, you can compare them and see what I mean.

The “granddaughter” -- of course -- is Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), and the scene with the two droids in the desert, who part disagreeably.

Of course, there are big differences. Much time passes before Tahei and Matakishi (or R2D2 and CP3O) are re-united after their initial spat. But there are certainly more similarities than differences!

***

Finally (the richness of all that follows would not have been as powerful had Renoir not taken the time to give the two men all the screen time that led up to this moment), they arrive at Elsa’s little cottage/house...

They hide in the barn. They hear something. Maréchal stands ready with a big club. A cow walks in -- followed by Elsa (Dita Parlo), making her entrance in the film at the 1:34 mark. (She's billed second in the imdb credits!)

They meet. Rosenthal speaks German, of course. Maréchal does not.

She feeds them. Suddenly we hear soldiers singing. A knock on the window. A soldier asks for directions. The danger passes.

FTB. Picture of her dead husband, killed at Verdun.

ELSA: “The table’s too big now,” as Renoir shows us the table, with little Lotte (uncredited child actor [note: the little girl who played Lotte never saw the film, having died of the flu some weeks before the film was released]) sitting alone at a table which could seat eight.

The following scene is another that is so good it deserves to be transcribed.

Maréchal is preparing straw for the cow.

MARÉCHAL: "Relax, it's only me! You don't mind if a Frenchman feeds you." (He gives the cow a firm pat.) "You smell like my grandfather's cows. A good smell." (He laughs lightly.)

"You're a cow from Würtemberg and I'm a working man from Paris, but we can still be pals! You're a poor cow, I'm a poor soldier. We each do our best." (Again he gives the cow a little thump. He leaves the barn.)

But Renoir stays right where he is, slightly behind Bessie. She lets out a loud moo.

CUT to Maréchal, yawning and stretching. Some time has passed. Church bells are ringing. He is outside the little house, and as he walks in, we hear Lotte singing, and see that she is playing with Rosenthal.

The home seems a picture of domestic tranquility. Renoir feeds us some important information with a throwaway line, when Elsa asks Maréchal to get some water in German. Rosenthal quickly translates, but Maréchal says he understood her.

MARÉCHAL: “For 18 months I never understood the guards. But her I understand!”

So we learn how long they were imprisoned, quite casually.

FTB. They have constructed a manger for Christmas. Rosenthal has made some little toy figures (carved potatoes!) for the scene.

ROSENTHAL: "Isn't my little donkey cute? And my ox? And the infant Jesus?" (He smiles broadly, as he turns towards Maréchal) ... "An ancestor of mine."

Again, Renoir takes his time with a tender scene where they are all putting Lotte to bed. It is important in establishing how much Maréchal and Rosenthal care for her. and how long they've been there! Of course, since their arrival, the attraction between Maréchal and Elsa has been evident, but subtle. Until now.

Elsa bids the two men good night. Rosenthal goes into his room while Maréchal goes to his, opens the door, turns on the lights, and then returns to blow out the candles. Elsa is standing quite still and demure. They bid each other “bon soir” this time. He goes into Rosenthal’s room and closes that door behind him.

CUT and we see that the two men’s rooms connect. Maréchal closes the door that connects their rooms and picks up a little apple from his bureau, which he begins to eat. (The music swells.) Just as he reaches the open door -- the camera is now right behind him -- there is a wonderful composition, with Elsa, beautiful in black, just above Gabin’s right shoulder. It’s a beautiful shot. He walks towards her, slowly. They embrace, and

FTB. [This is only example I can find in the entire film of a choppy edit on the soundtrack. The “swelling” music of the love scene is brutally merged with the new music, a faster, jaunty cue.]

Another short scene. After a few frames of the house, shot from outside,

CUT to Rosenthal looking out the window. As he turns to leave, the camera pushes out of the window completely, and Renoir gives us another little hold on the beautiful countryside.

CUT back to Rosenthal, who walks in, catching Maréchal and Elsa in an embrace. He asks for coffee.

Renoir now CUTS to a close-up on Gabin’s face. We see a new man. He tells Rosenthal that the coffee is ready, and asks Elsa to repeat the phrase in French, which she does, charmingly.

FTB. The two men are talking outside the house. Maréchal can’t bring himself to tell Elsa that they are leaving. Rosenthal volunteers to do it.

He enters the house and speaks with Elsa. He then opens the window, where we see Maréchal. Note this composition! The open window is like a painting, framed within another painting!

There is the expected sad parting. They say final goodbyes. The men leave. They disappear into the darkness, and Renoir CUTS back to Elsa, putting away the dishes.

FTB.

Huge snowy mountains. There is camera tracking here virtually identical to the previous scene when we first see the two men in the ditch by the reeds! Ninety degrees to the right and then downward, where we find Maréchal and Rosenthal in deep snow. Even the conversation is the same -- about whether or not to leave from this spot or wait until it gets dark...

MARÉCHAL: “We’ve got to end this war and make it the last.”
ROSENTHAL: “Don’t count on it.”

[how prescient!]

CUT to German soldiers, following tracks in the snow. One of the soldiers points.

Many others raise their guns. A few shots are fired before the sergeant tells them to stop firing -- they’ve already reached Switzerland.

SERGEANT: “Don’t shoot, they’re in Switzerland.”
SOLDIER: “Good for them.”

The final shot: The two men are trudging through a field of virgin snow...

***

EXTRAS:
  • Newly restored digital transfer, created from the long-lost camera negative
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • A rare theatrical trailer in which Jean Renoir discussed both Grand Illusion and his personal war experiences
  • Audio essay by film historian Peter Cowie
  • Archival radio presentation: Renoir and Erich von Stroheim accept Grand Illusion’s Best Foreign Film honors at the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards
  • Press book excerpts: Renoir’s letter “to the projectionist,” cast bios, an essay on Renoir by von Stroheim, and essays about the film’s title and recently recovered camera negative
  • Restoration demonstration
  • Optional image quality: RSDL dual-layer edition

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