Good Movies: la Grande Illusion, 1937

La Grande Illusion is the greatest anti-war movie ever made yet it shows no bloody battles, no heaps of corpses, no violent explosions; it is a movie that glorifies Peace. Director Jean Renoir drew on his own experience as a flyer in the First World War as background — Jean Gabin actually wears Renoir’s old uniform throughout the movie. 

The film opens in the messhall of a German fighter squadron during World War I. A pilot named von Rauffenstein (played by Erich von Stroheim) announces that he has shot down a French plane and that its two-man crew have been taken prisoner. Invite them to lunch, says von Rauffenstein, if they are officers. One of the other fliers begins mixing punch. This situation would be quite familiar to movie audiences in the 1930s: aviators in the Great War were supposed to be “Knights of the Air” and given to chivalrous behavior.

The French prisoners are brought in: de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Maréchal (Jean Gabin). Rauffenstein recognizes Boeldieu as a social equal (one is a “von” and the other a “de”) but shows little interest in Maréchal. There is pleasant conversation and food and drink. A German notices that Maréchal is not eating because, with one arm in a sling, he cannot cut his meat. The German cuts it up for him. Then the Frenchmen are led away to a prison camp in Germany.

The aviators’ mess. A German helps our Maréchal. Rauffenstein talks to Boeldieu in back.

Right away the two fliers become involved in an escape plan that involves digging a tunnel under the prison barracks. Meanwhile the camp is preparing a musical show. While the prisoners play with costumes and goof around, Boeldieu looks out a window and sees a group of uniformed boys being drilled. “Outside, children pretending to be men, inside, men pretending to be children.”

The prisoners have a vision of loveliness.

The musical gala proceeds. A young man in drag arrests everyone’s attention. This is one of several occasions in the film where Renoir reminds us that these are men removed from women, that their situation is unnatural and wrong. In the last part of the film we see the flip side of this situation, a farm run by a war widow who lives in a world without men. 

Maréchal learns that Fort Douaumont, lost to the Germans at the beginning of the battle of Verdun, has been recaptured. He leaps on the stage and announces the victory to the prisoner audience. The men stand and sing the Marseillaise. The German guards break up the show and Maréchal is placed in solitary. When he is released he learns that Fort Douaumont is back in German hands.

Throughout the film Renoir uses almost no closeup shots and few shots that contain only one person; he shows that humans are social animals by photographing them mostly in groups. The shots of the meal given Maréchal and de Boeldieu by the German fliers emphasize human interaction, as do those of the prisoners working on their escape or preparing their musical. Solitary confinement is an unnatural state for humans and Maréchal begins to go mad. A guard gives him a harmonica, one of the film’s many instances of kindness or compassion shown by one person to another.

Maréchal in solitairy.

Maréchal retains his sanity. When he returns to the barracks, the tunnel is almost finished but before it can be used, the prisoners are transferred. On his way out, Maréchal tries to tell the incoming prisoners about the escape tunnel, but they are English and do not understand his French. The notion of language difference dividing people is another of Renoir’s recurrent motifs but, as we shall see, it is not an insurmountable barrier.

Some time later, Maréchal and de Boeldieu are assigned to a prison camp in an ancient castle. There they are re-united with Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish POW they met earlier on, and with von Rauffenstein, who runs the camp. Rauffenstein reads their records: each man has attempted several escapes. He informs them that escape is impossible and asks Boeldieu for his promise not to attempt to escape. Boeldieu agrees but asks why Rauffenstein didn’t request such promises from Maréchal and Rosenthal, “Their word is as good as mine.” “Perhaps,” sniffs Rauffenstein.

The two aristocrats speak in French, German, and English and switch freely from one language to another. Both men realize that their world will not survive the war; the future belongs to people like Maréchal. Boeldieu accepts this fate and sees it as probably a good thing. Rauffenstein is dismayed at this “result of your [French] revolution.” They hold this conversation in the vast halls of a medieval castle.

Rauffenstein and Boeldieu discuss the collapse of the aristocratic system. []

Rauffenstein has been in a terrible plane crash and can no longer fly. He wears gloves to hide the terrible burns on his hands and an elaborate brace for his back, broken in two places. A lovely shot pans over a table of items needed when he dresses in the morning: grooming gear and medical apparatus together. Rauffenstein can no longer be a combat officer; he is reduced to being a prison warden, a role that he despises.

Rosenthal comes from a wealthy banking family and gets great parcels of food sent from home which he shares with his fellow prisoners. Possible anti-Semitism is gently thrust aside; ethnicity is not a barrier to humanity. (There is at least one black prisoner shown in the movie but he has no lines.)

Maréchal, Boeldieu, and Rosenthal come up with an escape plan — that is, two will escape while one creates a diversion. Boeldieu insists on staying behind; he does not mention the promise he made to Rauffenstein. The plan works: Maréchal and Rosenthal get away. Boeldieu is confronted by Rauffenstein who pleads with the man to surrender and not force him to shoot. Boeldieu refuses and Rauffenstein shoots him.

The mortally wounded Boeldieu lies in bed. “Who knew a stomach wound would hurt so much,” he says. “I meant to hit you in the leg,” Rauffenstein apologizes, “It was a poor shot.” Boeldieu comforts him, “In the dark at a hundred and fifty meters, it wasn’t a bad shot at all.” He says finally, “It is a terrible thing for a common man, to die in battle. For those like us, it is the best way out.” He dies. The death of this French nobleman in a crumbling German castle is the only death we witness in this war movie but, of course, it stands for a lot more.

Seeing the snow on the mountains between Germany and Switzerland, Rosenthal remarks that “Nature has no respect for borders.” Nor does Nature much care about nationalities and can bypass language issues as well. Renoir said that the world is not divided vertically, into countries, but horizontally, into classes. In this movie the aristocracy and common men are antagonists. Renoir returned to this topic with Rules of the Game in 1939. Aristocrats were interesting as a doomed species and Renoir treated them gently and with wry humor.

Maréchal and Rosenthal make their way toward the Swiss border but Rosenthal has hurt his leg and finds it more and more difficult to walk. The two are starving and have a quarrel. Maréchal leaves Rosenthal and walks away, the two of them are singing a comic song at each other, “There Was A Little Sailor”, but the joking lyrics have one hungry man cannibalizing another. Maréchal suddenly realizes what he is singing, stops, and goes back to help Rosenthal.

The two escapees drag themselves to a small farm where they are discovered by Elsa (Dita Parlo), the woman who runs it. Maréchal tries to speak to her but they do not understand each other’s language. Elsa sees Rosenthal’s hurt leg and takes the men into her house. She bandages Rosenthal and gives food, bread and milk, to the hungry men. A German patrol comes by but Elsa does not give away their presence at her farm.

Elsa feeds Maréchal. Rosenthal in background.

Elsa’s husband was killed at Verdun. She points to a picture of her three brothers and names the battles where each fell, each one a great German victory. Her dining table has chairs turned up on it — there is no one to sit there except Else and her daughter, Lotte. Now the two men become part of the household. Rosenthal speaks some German and Maréchal begins to learn the language. On Christmas Eve Rosenthal and Maréchal play Santa and construct a crêche for Lotte. That night also, Maréchal and Elsa make love.

Maréchal and Elsa embrace. The crêche is on the table beside them.

Spring comes and now the two escaped prisoners must leave this peaceful place and make for the Swiss border. Maréchal embraces Elsa one last time and promises to return — if he survives the war. The two men talk of splitting up but they are still together when a German patrol spots them making their way through the snow. They raise their rifles and fire off a volley.

I first saw la Grande Illusion in 1971 or ’72 after some years of anti-war movies spawned by Vietnam. The common tactic in an anti-war film was to be as bloody and horrific as possible and to end on a tragic note with the meaningless death of the protagonist(s). So I thought I knew what was coming. But after the first few shots, the German patrol leader stops his men: “They’re over the border. They’re in Switzerland now.” “Good for them,” says a soldier, and I felt my heart lift. The film ends with a shot of the two men in the distance climbing up through the snow.

Renoir directing Jean Gabin in The Lower Depths 1937 (made right after <em>la Grande Illusion</em>)

 So, Renoir’s film is anti-war, anti-nationalist, and shows aristocrats as doomed beings. The nobility of war is an illusion, as is national honor. All men are brothers, no matter their nationality or ethnicity. None of this went down well with certain Europeans in 1937: Josef Goebbels proclaimed la Grande Illusion to be “cinematic enemy number one” and banned it from being shown in Germany. Franklin Roosevelt, on the other hand, said it was a movie that every free man or woman should see. When France fell in 1940, the Nazis destroyed every print they could find. In the 1950s a print was cobbled together from the various reels that could be discovered but it was thought that the negative was lost. But No! The original negative was found and a restored version of Renoir’s movie was released in 1999. Currently this restored version is playing in certain cities.

Peter Cowie’s notes on the Criterion Collection release of la Grande Illusion.
An analysis of some of Renoir’s visual techniques at The Film Sufi.

How To Do It #1: Obliterating Carcasses

Just in case you need the info, here’s how to Obliterate a Carcass with explosives. Distribute them so:

These are the main points:

Place 1 pound (.45 kilograms) of explosives in two locations on each leg.
Use detonator cord to tie the explosives charges together.
Use water bags to hold the explosives close to the carcass if it is impractical to place charges under the carcass, for example when the carcass is laying in water.
Horseshoes should be removed to minimize dangerous flying debris.

That’s for partial dispersion if urgency is not a factor: 

Perhaps a few days are expected before the public is to visit the area, or perhaps bears will not be attracted to the carcass.

 But you might need total obliteration:

In situations where total animal obliteration is necessary, it is advisable to double the amount of explosives used… Use 20 pounds (9 kilograms) on top of and 20 pounds (9 kilograms) underneath the carcass, depending on the type of explosives used. Total obliteration might be preferred in situations where the public is expected in the area the next day, or where bears are particularly prolific.

All this info is from a handy guide to obliterating animal carcasses with explosives published by the U.S. Forest Service, which I recommend for your light reading.

Is this info useful? Of course it is! Here in Canada we never know when we might open the door, looking for the morning paper, and discover a moose carcass. (BTW, a moose will require more explosives than a horse carcass which is estimated at 1100 pounds (or 499 kilos for you communists.) Moose may go a metric tonne!)

Forest worker unreeling fireline explosive from the Forest Service bulletin:

At any rate please, if it’s a horse carcass, do remember to remove shoes before obliterating — just to eliminate shrapnel — probably with a moose you don’t need to worry.

Now I know you’re thinking, “How about that whale carcass they blew up? Wasn’t that awful?” (If you aren’t thinking that here’s a link to video of the “blast blasting blubber beyond all believable bounds”). It was awful. But here’s the thing: these scientific diagrams are from the United States Forest Service and they show a carcass being obliterated via fireline explosives. Fireline explosives are used to clear a line ahead of advancing forest fires. They are usually packaged in coils so that they can be rolled out along a fireline or, as in the picture here, to break apart a tree that’s too dangerous to remove with a chainsaw. That whale was detonated with twenty-five cases of dynamite! See, that’s just too much. I am told that whale carcasses are often successfully obliterated in this manner but I cannot say for sure, not having tested this in my own front yard.

If you have a whale in your front yard when you get the morning paper and want to know more, ask somebody with a blasting ticket. If you are a very sick person go here to see a (live) mule’s head blown off with dynamite.

[Note: If any bands decide to name themselves Total Obliteration, Partial Obliteration, Obliterated Animal Carcass, or any other term derived from the above, either I or the U.S. Forest Service will sue you. Unless you give us free CDs, T-shirts, tickets to your gigs, and so on. Except I do not speak for the U.S. Forest Service, just me.]

Pictures I Like: Tankman, Charlie Cole, 1989

My Story: Whoa! What can you say? You know how big a tank is, there’s one on display somewhere within a hundred miles or so no matter where you live. Maybe it’s a Sherman tank at an American war memorial, maybe it’s a T-34 somewhere in Eastern Europe — these are smaller than the one in Beijing in 1989. Even so, walk around and stand in front of that thing and imagine it’s coming at you, how long before you step aside? And this guy stepped back in front of the tank when it tried to get around him! Then he climbed up on top of it and said to the driver: “Why are you here? My city is in chaos because of you.” Man, what can you say?

The Facts: Charlie Cole was shooting from his hotel room when the tanks rolled into Tienanmen Square. He knew right away he had a good picture but was afraid the authorities would confiscate it. He hid the exposed roll in the bathroom and loaded the camera with blank film. He had another camera with shots of the wounded on it but he had no film left to substitute and he thought the authorities would be suspicious of empty cameras. Sure enough, the security police came into his room about fifteen minutes after the shot was taken. They stripped the  film from his cameras and lectured him on taking pictures while the city was under martial law. They left and Cole recovered the film from his toilet. His shots of the wounded were gone (but you can see plenty here and shots of corpses, too, if you need to).

Cole was not the only photographer to shoot this scene, there were at least four others. Here’s a shot by Stuart Franklin:

[photo removed at Franklin’s request]

How many tanks does it take to put down a student demonstration anyway? Here’s another shot from ground level by Terril Jones, notice the guys fleeing:

(credit: Terril Jones, AP)

There’s some video of this episode, too. People (army? security police? maybe friends?) dragged the man away. An American network tried to track him down years later but to no avail. That makes the song by Cui Jian adopted as a student protest anthem, “Nothing to My Name”, even more appropriate.

Blaschka Glass Models

Leopold Blaschka was a Bohemian glass worker with a love of natural history. He moved to Dresden after the birth of his son, Rudolph, so that the boy would have better educational opportunities. Blaschka’s paying work was mostly glass eyes and test tubes until Prince Camil de Rohan became intrigued with some botanical models that Leopold had made for himself. The prince had a huge collection of plants and flowers and commissioned orchid models from Blaschka in 1860. That same year the Dresden State Museum asked if he could create glass models of invertebrate creatures. Blaschka could. Museums around Europe began commissioning models of plants and sea creatures and Blaschka soon dropped all his other work.

Rudolph joined his father in the project and the pair turned out thousands of glass models over the years. Harvard became interested in the models and, from 1887, thanks to the genrosity of the Ware family, the Blaschkas worked exclusively for that university, creating more than three thousand botanical models.

The Blaschka family.

Leopold’s first efforts were based largely on Ernst Haeckel‘s famous drawings but after dealing with Rohan, he worked more from preserved or living specimens. Rudolph took a long ocean voyage in 1892 to study plants in North America and the Caribbean.

Blaschka drawing

The models are made of layers of glass sometimes reinforced with metal wires. The colors are powdered glass painted onto the main body, then scratched or formed into leaf veins or other details. The glass was heated over and over again, something which has affected its durability.

Harvard display case for Blaschka Cacao models. (c) courtesy, photo by Adam Blanchette.

The models are very fragile — the first specimens shipped to the United States were broken in Customs — and repairs sometimes need to be done.

“I don’t know how we could clean that,” sighed a Harvard curator. (c) President & Fellows, Harvard College, courtesy Blaschka archives, photo by Hillel Burger,

Before and after shots of a Paper Nautilus at the National Museum of Wales

But some of the glass seems to be deteriorating as well. Powdery white glass corrosion is visible on some specimens and, in others, parts of the models are separating. Most of the troubles seem to be from models made in the late 1880s and early 90s. Rudolph complained about the quality of glass supplied to him then and began making his own glass after this time.

[Video of Micro CT scan of above squid model done to determine how the glass is layered.]

Probably these museum models could have been done in wax and served the stated purpose as study objects, but the beauty of glass entrances everyone who sees these wonderful creations and their value today is as works of art.

Leopold died in 1895 and Rudolph carried on alone until 1938 when, at the age of 80, he said he was just too tired to continue. He died the next year. The Blaschkas never hired an apprentice and Rudolph had no children. Their methods died with them.


“Flowers Out of Glass” by Nancy Marie Brown. A very good article that gets into the Blaschkas’ methods and attempts to restore and preserve these flowers.

Many museums have put photos of their collections on line. The Harvard collection has been exhibited in several places and a couple of short videos  have been made about it.
Dresden photos by Heidi and Hans-Jurgen Koch.
National Museum of Wales.

Amir Khadir and Mise en Demeure

Quebec Premier Charest has announced that the group Mise en Demeure will not play at the official Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day celebration on the Plains of Abraham. Charest says the festival is not political.  [double-take] What? You’re having a St. Jean celebration on the Plains of goddam Abraham that isn’t political? In fact, a Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebration anywhere has been pretty political for, oh, as long as I can remember. Back in 2008, a couple of bands were barred because they sang in English. (After a public outcry they returned to the bill.)

St.-Jean-Baptiste arrests in 1968. Trudeau used the occasion to begin his rise.

The group (whose name means “Official Notice”, a legal designation, en Anglais) has released correspondence with the Quebec government showing that the province threatened to cut off funding to other groups if Mise en Demeure was allowed to play. So, Mise en Demeure withdrew so as not to offend government sensibilities.

Is the group political? Sure. It’s right up there with, say, Chumbawamba as an anarchist threat. Why ban them? Why add more fuel to the fire in Quebec? Well, that’s because of Amir Khadir.

Khadir’s house.

Amir Khadir was born in Teheran and immigrated to Canada when he was five. He is currently the only member of Québec Solidaire to hold a seat in the provincial legislature. Solidaire is a leftist, sovereignist party. Khadir has shown his support for the recent Montreal protests but he is hardly the only member of the provincial government to do that. Khadir has three daughters.

One daughter, Yalda, has been charged in connection with the protests. Yalda is a real live wire. At a court hearing she attacked a press photographer saying that she deserved her privacy. Well, no, Yalda, you’re in court now and this is part of being a public protestor. Hold your chin up and face the camera. Current charges against Yalda include vandalizing the office of a political opponent of her dad’s. I don’t know if she’s guilty or not but the Quebec press has already pronounced that she is. Currently, the girl is out on bail.

The Mise en Demeure poster.

But what has this to do with Mise en Demeure? Well, when the cops went to arrest Yalda, they searched the rest of the house and discovered a poster for Mise en Demeure under a glass tabletop. The poster is a take on Delacroix’s painting of Paris revolutionaries storming the barricades. Instead of the bare-breasted figure of Marianne/Liberty (which probably would have had the group accused of pornography) there stands Bananarchiste, member of Mise en Demeure. The stripped dead soldier on the ground has been given the features of Jean Charest. A Montreal cop kneels before Bananarchiste. It’s a very straight-forward takeoff substituting current figures for those of Delacroix. The face of the guy in the top hat with the musket is now that of Amir Khadir.

The Delacroix original.

I can see Khadir and his daughters thinking that this was great fun, but proper Quebec is scandalized. It’s violent, they say, sucking in their collective lower lip like Max Pointy. “Charest Dead  at the Feet of Khadir” screams le Journal de Montréal.  Everything in the picture is removed from context, every syllable in Mise en Demeure’s lyrics is examined for propriety. Quebec used to think of itself as cool, now it sounds like a Florida court  trying a hip-hop artist.

But worse than this is the way that the media accepts that no proper politician would ever own such a seditious poster, at least not where a cop can find it, and if he does he’s guilty of something. Khadir hasn’t been charged with anything yet but the press is ready to defend Authority when it cracks down. Here’s a sample: this guy in the Gazette wants us to know he’s cool, he’s a metal-head who’s been to tons of concerts and he’s not offended by bad-taste album covers (he prints a Cannibal Corpse cover depicting one rotting corpse fellating another to demonstrate just how much he can tolerate) but this, this!, is too much, he says. Oh, my. Your poor bruised metallic feelings. But anyone who still looks to newspapers for unbiased news is doomed to disppointment. All of Quebec’s press is now and has always been opposed to the protests. Bring on the Law, they cry, and await Judge Dredd to sort things out.

Mise en Demeure remembers the good times. Quebec premiers’ heads on the wall.

So, another day, another stupid move by Charest. Meanwhile, you can listen to Mise en Demeure here. In fact, you can download a complete album for free! Don’t worry, Grand-dad, it won’t hurt your ears — it’s 99% acoustic and the lyrics are fairly clear; Chumbawamba is not an off-the-wall comparison.