"Streng verboten"

“Streng verboten”

Sometimes it’s difficult to understand how military forces continue to fill their ranks. Once upon a time, the sales pitch was glory and valour, defending ones homeland and following in a proud tradition. As time has gone on, and the truth about killing in the name has been understood to greater and greater degrees, the veil of valour has been lifted…and the illusion behind it dispelled. Still, men and women step up to do what needs to be done. Perhaps they are enticed by the songs of war being sung by the gathered voices…or perhaps seduced by the sound of boot steps in-time underneath.

During World War One, two french soldiers are approached to clarify their cartography. When their superior officer cannot tell whether a mark on a German map is a road, a river, or a railway, the men are sent back to the conflict area to get their facts straight. No sooner do they get to the spot than they are shot down by German forces.

The men – Boeldieu and Maréchal – are rolled into a P.O.W camp, one specifically designed for officers. Here they are given all due respect and consideration by their enemy captors, but let that not distract from the underlying message: They are prisoners, and will be executed for disobedience.

Speaking of disobedience, Boeldieu and Maréchal quickly find themselves involved with an escape plot, thanks to their bunkmates at the barracks. These men have been tunnelling underneath it in the hopes of making a break for it.

However, before they can truly make a run at freedom, they are pulled from the camp at brought to the chateau of a German Commandante. It’s here that a run for freedom gets all the more difficult, yet also here where we learn how similar inmate and jailor really are in times of war. But common bonds or no, Boeldieu, Maréchal, et al remain hellbent on escape…hoping to get away from the senselessness of war once and for all.

Erich von Stroheim
It’s really not enough to think about what GRAND ILLUSION says about war in the 20th Century; one also has to think about when it was saying it.

Renoir clearly sees that soldiers in The Great War shared a camaraderie. Few of them wanted to be there, fighting and dying so gruesomely so that men in power could redraw the lines of their maps. They all looked across to the opposite trench…or at the faces of the men they were taking captive…and they saw themselves. They saw fellow farmers, masons, carpenters, and mechanics. They saw kindred spirits speaking with different accents. It was something that infantry wrestled with as they fought in close-contact, and something that would haunt officers as they met their counterparts in enemy colours.

GRAND ILLUSION takes the similarities one step further by suggesting that a German officer and a French officer might well have courted the same waitress.

To suggest all of this is damned near treasonous, as fraternization with the enemy was, and still is, a huge no-no. However, to make these inferences as a French artist in 1938, when the drums of war are thundering from all sides takes great courage. This claim that the virtue of war is an illusion doesn’t just fly in the face of the French leadership, but also the advancing Nazi forces that would regard such artistic statements as blasphemy that needed to be destroyed. The film is a specific loogie in the eye of Hitler himself, and that any prints survived is something of a minor miracle.

Dissent seldom endures.

La Marseillaise

A wonderful recurring trend that I’m enjoying meeting up with as I go through these blind spots is recognizing classics films’ influence on future films that I have already seen – and GRAND ILLUSION certainly qualifies. It certainly didn’t take me long to crack a grin as I learned that the french POW’s were working on an escape by tunnelling through the barracks floorboards, and under the prison yard. Realizing in that instant that I was watching the film that influenced a film I love – THE GREAT ESCAPE – endeared it to me that much more. Heck, one could even accuse THE GREAT ESCAPE of plagiarism as the would-be-escapees in both films dispose of the dirt they excavate in the same way! Some might say that seeing these moments don’t feel all that special, since what was once original is now commonplace. For me though, it’s a joy to see these details first-hand. It’s like meeting the grandparents of your nuttiest friend, and realizing that the nuttiness is actually genetic.

As if the link back to THE GREAT ESCAPE wasn’t enough, there was also a link back to one of my all-time favorites, CASABLANCA. In that film, A Nazi sing-a-long in Rick’s Café Américain is broken up when Victor Laszlo has the band play La Marseillaise (The French National Anthem). In that instant, the sorrowful defiance is written all over the French cafe patrons. They sing in honour of the home they are fleeing from – the one that has been blown half to hell as the world kills each other upon it. Here, there is another dose of sorrowful defiance, though coming with a little less of the former and a little more of the latter.

Each scene is equally stirring, and the influence is clear. Again, it’s amazing to see how the tone of a story beat can change.

The curious amount of mirth in this film is what caught me most by surprise, and what I will keep with me. While not every POW camp was a complete hell hole, I never called “bullshit” on Renoir’s flute playing captives at the castle, nor his cross-dressing captives at the barracks. These sorts of shenanigans may not feel plausible exactly, but they feel like the sorts of distractions soldiers in those situations would want. They’d look to anything to take their mind off the facts that many on their side don’t know where they are, and they may never be returning home. In the face of such bleak prospects, any distraction is a welcome one – something we’d see come up again in everything from STALAG 17 to M*A*S*H. Whether it’s a snowball fight between P.O.W’s or a musical number being staged, these shenanigans help all involved focus on staying alive for a few more days. Sometimes that’s a tall order for a person surrounded with guards ready to kill them.

To fight that foreboding feeling, soldiers in all manner of films put up a small illusion. These illusions help keep spirits up, and keep the enemy on their toes. Most of all, these small illusions help distract all involved from the grand illusion; the very notion that this fight they’re involved in – whatever side they’re fighting for and against – will be the answer. Hell, it won’t even be an answer, let alone the answer. However, it’s the story we are sold…that some must day so the many may live. It’s an illusion conjured by men who seldom have to live within its framing, and one that we still fall for far too often.

I post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for November so far…

Will Kouf watched SHADOW OF A DOUBT



Dan Heaton watched GREMLINS 2

Courtney Small watched SOLARIS (the Russian version)

Andy Hart watched PANDORA’S BOX


Sean Kelly watched REEFER MADNESS