Island of civility in a sea of barbarism
5 February 2017
Warning: Spoilers
As the critic Walter Benjamin reminds us, no civilization without barbarism, no enlightenment without inhumanity. So it is in Grand Illusion. The civilization lies in the camaraderie among the prisoners; the barbarism, offstage in the trenches where so many of the Lost Generation were slaughtered. Renoir's business, as always, is with the warm, the human, the civilized. Here he underlines that camaraderie by including "the Jew," whom he exempts from the worst of French anti-Semitism, and the members of the working class whose technical skills have made them pilots. Dalio is wonderful as "the Jew"; Gabin no less so as the former "mechanic." Fresnais and von Stroheim, the aristocratic career soldiers, hold themselves aloof, and experience the warmth ironically at best; not without bitterness, they agree that the war has put an end to heir world. A masterpiece among Renoir's masterpieces, it speaks to us almost as powerfullhy as it did to its first audiences. As we watch, it lets us believe in a tiny, imperiled, and almost unimaginable island of civilization where Gabin and "the Jew" can make common cause. But not without the reminder of barbarism: the guns pointed at the end by the frustrated German soldiers. Civilization, barbarism: Renoir understands both, and as always, celebrates the first without overlooking its second.
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