“Grand Illusion” – Andrew Guarini

“When the camera moves on its own in Grand Illusion, we are conscious of it actively interpreting the action, creating suspense or giving us information that the characters do not have.” – Film Art


Despite being one of the most prominent factors in cinematic endeavors, cinematography is actually simply composed of three things which can be done in so many variations seemingly without boundaries: 1) the photographic aspects of the shot, 2) the framing of the shot, and 3) the duration of the shot. Dependent upon director or cinematographer, the way in which the cinematography will function within the narrative of the film is extremely expansive. Certain parties will vie for a more ostentatious approach, almost making the audience conscious that they are watching a film by doing technically savvy shots or having characters break the fourth wall. Other films, like Jean Renoir’s 1937 World War I and social class meditation, Grand Illusion attempt to have cinematography accentuate the motives, feelings and suspense of characters and sequences by letting the camera work subtly and efficiently for emotional effect.


The most innovative aspect of Renoir’s film would have to be that it is a war film where viewing any actual physical combat is non-existent. No guns are fired, no fists thrown or bombs dropped; there are merely implications and “he said, she said.” What this allows is for the other film elements, especially the cinematography, to focus on class structure commentary and the effect of war on unity and the separations between countries and their people in times of conflict and crisis. Mainly, it finds humor in the oddities of war.


More than anything, the camera of Renoir in Grand Illusion is a patient one, observing for desired effect and effectively panning, tilting or tracking sparingly in fluid motion that doesn’t obstruct or distract from the scene. Life in the prison camp is dead time not just for our French protagonists but also for their German captors. Renoir works poetry out of moments where the camera monitors characters reacting to breaks from the prison life or things they might have cherished in life before the war. For example, the scene where Lt. Maréchal is being held in solidarity leads to his slow, upbeat playing of a harmonica. The camera comes to reveal a German guard outside the cell standing there, struggling to hold back his smile or interest even as he tries to keep walking past. The camera watches him and we make the connection that he, as much as the POWs, is held captive by the war.


A panning, then suddenly still camera becomes equally immersive to the plight of the Lieutenant and his conspirators. There is a scene where Maréchal and company are being moved out of their original camp before they were able to make use of their makeshift escape tunnel in their room. Maréchal sees the new prisoners moving in and feels like he must tell them about the tunnel. The camera pans as he hops over the rope where the old prisoners are being moved out and, on hands and knees, attempts to tell a new prisoner about the escape route. The camera looks on at the desperation and futility in Maréchal’s face as he attempts to explain it to the new prisoner, who, running with a theme in the movie of language barriers, does not speak French. Defeated, the cinematography lurks on Maréchal’s frustration and failures.


The rare movement by Renoir is often used for emotional exclamation, namely in instances of longing and tragedy that the film encounters. When Boeldieu is talking to Van Rauffenstein in the new prison, the camera tracks Rauffenstein’s movement where he takes care of the one flower in all of the prison. After Rauffenstein is forced to shoot Boeldieu, the camera views their heartfelt exchange (Boledieu remarks, “Duty is duty,” which is later paralleled by a German soldier passing the German widow Elsa’s house). Then, after Boeldieu dies, the tracking shot of Rauffenstein is paralleled as he crosses the room and cuts the one prison flower, symbolic of the death of a true French aristocrat that he genuinely admired and respected.


Even apart from static patience and intricate movement, Renoir uses other cinematography techniques for effect. When Maréchal and Rosenthal celebrate Christmas with the German Elsa, the camera follows her into the room where her daughter sleeps. It remains inert, waiting for the daughter to arise, and then, when Elsa leads her out, her smile glowing in the frame, the camera uses a rack focus going from out of focus to clear two times over. The implication here seems to be the comparison between Christmas alone since the death of her husband and this new Christmas with new men that have rejuvenated the lives of her and her daughter. Her happiness shines even more brightly when the lens brings us back to clarity. Even further, it creates contrast to a prior cinematography motion in the house. When the camera reveals Elsa’s now deceased husband in a picture frame, it comes out to reveal Elsa, setting the table and remarking, “Now the table is too large.” The camera pans to reveal a long table, chairs set on top, one we assume was originally for her husband and brothers, whom are all now dead. This makes the rack focus scene even more effective.


Even in the end, when the soldiers see Maréchal and Rosenthal crossing the infinite snow landscape into Switzerland, a long distance rightward pan creates a mountain of meaning and humorous irony. The pan goes across the invisible border that separates the two from being dead men to free men and further encapsulates the films commentary on the process, respect or even insanity in war. In Grand Illusion, the cinematography isn’t transparent but rather introspective into the action, suspense, and, most importantly, the characters dealing with wartime and prison time.


Rating: ★★★★


-Andrew Guarini

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