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A Tale of Humanity in the Great War

‘The Grand Illusion’ Screens at Dartmouth

  • Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim  in Jean Renoir's 1937 film "The Grand Illusion," which is being shown at Dartmouth College on May 17, 2014, at 4 p.m. (Rialto Pictures)

    Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim in Jean Renoir's 1937 film "The Grand Illusion," which is being shown at Dartmouth College on May 17, 2014, at 4 p.m. (Rialto Pictures)

  • Pierre Fresnay and Jean Gabin in Jean Renoir's 1937 film "The Grand Illusion." It is being shown at Dartmouth College on May 17, 2014, at 4 p.m. (Rialto Pictures)

    Pierre Fresnay and Jean Gabin in Jean Renoir's 1937 film "The Grand Illusion." It is being shown at Dartmouth College on May 17, 2014, at 4 p.m. (Rialto Pictures)

  • Actors, from left to right, Marcel Dalio, Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay, listen to a German solider in a World War I prisoner-of-war camp in Jean Renoir’s 1937 film "The Grand Illusion."

    Actors, from left to right, Marcel Dalio, Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay, listen to a German solider in a World War I prisoner-of-war camp in Jean Renoir’s 1937 film "The Grand Illusion."

  • Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim  in Jean Renoir's 1937 film "The Grand Illusion," which is being shown at Dartmouth College on May 17, 2014, at 4 p.m. (Rialto Pictures)
  • Pierre Fresnay and Jean Gabin in Jean Renoir's 1937 film "The Grand Illusion." It is being shown at Dartmouth College on May 17, 2014, at 4 p.m. (Rialto Pictures)
  • Actors, from left to right, Marcel Dalio, Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay, listen to a German solider in a World War I prisoner-of-war camp in Jean Renoir’s 1937 film "The Grand Illusion."

From the distance of 77 years, Jean Renoir’s 1937 film The Grand Illusion, which will be shown Saturday afternoon at the Loew Auditorium in Dartmouth’s Black Family Visual Arts Center, has, in comparison to the relentless cynicism of much of modern popular culture, such an unshak a ble belief in the ability of humans to find common ground that it seems almost unworldly.

But no one could accuse the great French filmmaker of naivete, so what is it that he’s communicating here?

Made two years before the start of World War II, the film looked back to the last great conflagration, World War I, in telling the story of a trio of French soldiers — an aristocrat, a working man and a Jewish businessman — who become prisoners of war of the Germans in two different camps on the Western front.

In both camps they meet and joust wittily with the camp’s commandant, a mournful and reluctant soldier played with crisp, understated elegance by Erich von Stroheim. The monocled Rittmeister von Rauffenstein is the epitome of a 19th century man caught up in a 20th century conflict .

The rules have changed, and he’s pained by the swiftness with which the barricades are tumbling. If nothing else the war is, in his view, a monumental breach of good manners — and civility is what keeps us from descending into terror in the streets.

Rauffenstein is drawn to one of the Frenchmen, another aristocrat named Capt. de Boeldieu, played by Pierre Fresnay with a graceful, amused irony that seems to be a French birthright. Rauffenstein can’t understand why Boeldieu seeks to erase the privileges of his class by consorting democratically with his fellow prisoners, the working man Lt. Maréchal, played by Jean Gabin, and Lt. Rosenthal, a well-to-do Jewish businessman played by Marcel Dalio.

But Boeldieu grasps better than Rauffenstein that the elaborate code of conduct that the German cherishes is already extinct. It’s impossible to cling to ideals of chivalry in flower when confronted by a juggernaut of new weapons — tanks, airplanes, poison gas — and casualties on an unprecedented scale.

At the same time, when divorced from their obligation to fight and kill, German, French, English and Russian soldiers, thrown together in the prison camps, can acknowledge their mutual humanity. And if there are no ideals left to embrace, then the monsters have won.

Because the film celebrates the better angels of our nature, and insists on that old canard about the brotherhood of man, it’s tempting to say that Renoir, son of the Impressionist painter Auguste, painted the world with the same misty, sensual radiance as his father. An optimist! A romantic! What use has the world for such softness in an era in which two world cataclysms are separated by only 20 years?

But The Grand Illusion has a raft of tricks up its ample sleeve. This movie and Renoir’s other masterwork from the period, The Rules of the Game , are as close as film has come to embodying the spirit of Mozart. They’re playful and wise, melancholy and exuberant, poignant and comical, raffish and sophisticated, endowed with the intimacy of chamber music but also the sweep and command of a symphony.

And what could be more dangerous to a totalitarian regime than a work of art that embraces such a range of humanity behaving generously and nobly?

That one of the lead characters is Jewish is no accident; nor is it coincidence that the film also shows prominently a French soldier who happens to be black, most likely serving in one of the country’s colonial units . There are several references to the unpleasant sound of men marching in lock step, an allusion to Hitler’s triumphal demonstrations of Nazi power.

When the three men try to escape, things go awry. Maréchal and Rosenthal trudge towards Switzerland but Rosenthal injures himself and they have to stop at the farmhouse of a German woman whose husband died at the ghastly battle of Verdun, where approximately 262,000 French and German soldiers were killed over a six-month period. She needs help running the farm; they need a place to recuperate. She could betray them but doesn’t, and slowly she and Maréchal fall in love.

The film’s sly contempt for the brutishness of the Nazis earned it the title of “Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1” from Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich’s minister of propaganda. It’s often called an anti-war film, but that seems too facile a description for such a rich, subtle film. It deplores the politics and mechanics of war, but also recognizes the contradictory impulses and responses that make war the crucible it is. For every misdeed, atrocity or show of incompetence there are also acts of valor and sacrifice. Are duty, obligation and love of country really so naive and futile?

But perhaps that’s simply a grand illusion.

The Grand Illusion will be shown at 4 p.m. this Saturday in the Loew Auditorium of the Black Family Visual Arts Center.

Also of note, and not unrelated to The Grand Illusion: Wes Anderson’s loopy, inventive The Grand Budapest Hotel is still playing at Hanover’s Nugget Theater, and will be shown on Sunday, May 25 at 4 and 7 p.m also in Loew Auditorium.

Anderson says his film was based partially on the writings of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, but I wouldn’t be surprised if The Grand Illusion figured in there somewhere as well. Like Renoir’s film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is set in the years before World War II, asks what makes civilization civilized. Are good manners just a veneer brushed over base instincts or are they a rebuke to savagery? But I don’t want to make The Grand Budapest Hotel sound overly serious.

It has some wonderful sight gags in it, and a nimble script that piles comic incident on comic incident. But its chief virtue is the performance of Ralph Fiennes as the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel. He’s so elegant and lithe, with a sleek way of throwing out his lines, that he brings Cary Grant to mind, a comparison I don’t make lightly!

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.