A meditation on La Illusion
The first world war was one of the last wars fought without being extensively filmed. There are moving images, but the cameras were still primitive, pre-sound, and the footage has more of the feel of a dream than a documentary.
Thus, apart from the obvious historical significance of the war, it also marks a before-and-after in terms of how great events are perceived. Today, we live in a world where if something has not been filmed it is almost as though it never happened. So much more will be known and documented in a quantitative sense from the 20th century onwards than was known and documented in the centuries that came before. Something which permits a mystique to the latter which the former cannot emulate.
Renoir’s film hinges on a changing social code. Von Stroheim’s German commander, von Rauffenstein, believes in the existence of an aristocratic world which exists above and beyond the commonplace one. This belief allows him to befriend his enemy, the Frenchman Boeldieu, (Pierre Fresnay) with whom he feels more kinship than his fellow German soldiers. It’s made clear in Boeldieu’s last scene that he feels the same way as his German counterpart, even if a pragmatic patriotism leads to him betraying this kinship.
The film treats this relationship between von Rauffenstein and Boeldieu sympathetically, in spite of the narrative’s overt support of a more democratic and patriotic approach to life, embodied in Gabin’s earthy heroism. As such, it’s tempting to read the officer’s complicity as a metaphor for something more than mere aristocratic indulgence. The way in which these men are capable of understanding a broader framework, above and beyond the geo-political one in which they are trapped, suggests perhaps the last remnant of the possibility of living beyond the confines of history. We are all caught in the trappings of our surroundings: class, race, religion, nationality, language etc. Renoir appears to posit the existence of a greater freedom, one which the war is seeking to remove. The war, and by implication, modernity too. Beneath its jovial patriotism there lurks an existential treatise, hardly surprising for a film made in France in the thirties.
This greater freedom might perhaps be associated with the privilege of not being filmed or documented. Was it so ridiculous of the apocryphal Red Indian to believe that the photograph was a theft of his soul? The more we are defined as who we are, the more the image of who we are is pinned down, the harder it is to escape the circumstances of that moment of definition. The facebook/ selfie era restricts the possibilities of individuality, rather than enhancing it.
Perhaps this is too much of a leap to extrapolate from Renoir’s movie. But part of what lends it a power above and beyond the classic narrative of a wartime prison escape is the way in which the film captures, twenty years after the events it is documenting, a particular place and time. Showing the ways in which a mutating world seeks to define the individual through notions of race, nationality and creed. A form of definition which blights and limits, rather than liberates.