La Grande Illusion aka Grand Illusion (1937) The Classic French WWI Movie

What took me so long to watch La grande illusion one of the greatest masterpieces of French cinema?  Jean Renoir’s black and white movie is simply one of the best movies I have ever seen, regardless of any genre. It combines so many elements, to enumerate them all would make a long list. Compared to La grande illusion every other POW movie seems to be just a remake. Every element of later films is already there but the message is a different one. This is a movie that probably wouldn’t have been possible with the same core message after WWII. When Renoir shot his movie, there was still ample room for positive German figures. We don’t see any nasty or cruel guards.  La grande illusion is a work of poetical realism. The two points of view go hand in hand.

The central story is the story of two officers Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a simple mechanic, and de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocrat, shot down together over Germany. They are brought to a prison camp where, thanks to the food parcels of one of their rich Jewish fellow officers, they live relatively luxuriously while the German guards eat cabbage day in and day out. The people they are sharing a room with have been digging a tunnel for weeks. While waiting for the tunnel to be finished, they spend their days rehearsing for a theater play, dreaming of women and civilian life. When Maréchal announces that Douaumont has fallen, they all sing the Marseillaise together. Maréchal is locked up for this act of instigation and almost goes mad in isolation.

Before they can put the tunnel to use, they are all sent to another camp. After different attempts to escape, Maréchal and Boeldieu are brought to burg Wintersheim. Officer von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) whom they have met before is in charge of the burg. Von Stroheim as Rauffenstein is one of the most memorable war movie characters. He has fairytale like, fantastic aspects. Von Rauffenstein has been badly wounded, his spine has twice been broken, he has silver plates in his body and wears a corset. He looks like an artificial being. He is an aristocrat through and through and recognizing the same background and upbringing in Boeldieu he takes an intense liking to him. Boeldieu, even though, stiff and formal as Maréchal often says, feels closer to the simple officers and wants to transcend the class differences. Even though he likes von Rauffenstein a lot, he still helps the other prisoners in their attempt to flee. Maréchal and Rosenthal make it and find refuge on the farm of a German widow (Dita Parlo). They cannot stay but Maréchal and Elsa still dream of meeting again after the war.

Renoir chose deliberately to show no violence. The war is spoken of, we never see it. His aim was to show a world that transcends differences. This is socialism of the purest kind, the one, that unfortunately only ever existed as an idea. Renoir wanted to show in how many ways people of different classes and nationalities are alike. The French prisoners make fun of the Germans’ constant repeating “Das ist strengstens verboten (strictly forbidden)”. It’s like a running gag all through the movie. A ritual. The Germans try to coerce the French and the French in excahnge make fun of them. Contrasting the attitudes of France and Germany towards obedience is one that we find in many older movies. It is also symbolised in all the interdictions that we see in the movie and in the barbed wire and fences. It’s a very funny movie at times. Fun that stems from the contrasts of the different classes and their use of language. The late, great Jean Gabin was always an outstanding actor, but here, as Maréchal, the simple mechanic, born in the 20th arrondissement of Paris (pure working class), he surpasses himself.  I really don’t know how they did the subtitles for this movie as they speak rapidly (I did watch the French version). Judging from the trailer, parts of the dialogues have been left out, nuances have been flattened. That is a pity. The use of dialogue and languages throughout the movie is a very realistic one. Germans speak German, French speak French, English speak English. Working class people speak like working class people, and the aristocrats like aristocrats.

As I said before, I don’t think a movie like this would have been possible after WWII. The illusion that everybody is the same at heart was shattered by then.

The illusion in the title apparently refers to the illusion of the class system. But I think there is another interpretation. Towards the end Maréchal says “We have to finish this war and hope that it was the last one” upon which Rosenthal utters something like “That is just an illusion, old man”. In 1937 is was already obvious that peace wouldn’t last forever.

La Grande Illusion is a movie that every cinephile needs to watch and possibly re-watch as it is multilayered and full of symbolism. Truly a work of art.

Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005) Christmas in War Movies III

This is not only the best of the three movies on the theme Christmas in War Movies that I have reviewed but it is one of my Top 10 favourite war movies. And definitely the one, with L’armée du crime aka Army of Crime, that is closest to my heart.

Merry Christmas aka Joyeux Noël is based on a true event, the so-called “Little Peace during the Great War”. It’s a multinational co-prodcution, in three languages, English, French and German, filmed by the French writer and film director Christian Carion. One of the most European movies of all time. It portrays cultural differences of the involved parties in a truly amazing way. It is one of the most outstanding anti-war movies and achieves to make a profound pacifist and humanist statement.

Pretty much like Stalingrad, Joyeux Noël focuses on very few people. At the heart of the movie are the soldiers in the German, French and Scottish trenches. The central figures are the three lieutenants of the respective trenches, and one or two of their soldiers.

After endless days of shelling, Christmas 1914 arrives. The soldiers in the three enemy trenches are having their Christmas meals. A simple meal, accompanied by a lot of whisky, in the Scottish trench, hundreds of Christmas trees and a frugal meal in the German trench and nicely laid tables, candles, wine and a sophisticated meal in the French trenches. Towards the end of the meal, the Scots start to sing and play the bagpipes. The German’s are startled at first and finally join in. Amongst their ranks is a soldier who was a famous opera singer (Benno Fürmann) in his civilian life. He leaves the German trench with a Christmas tree and walks singing into no man’s land until his angered lieutenant follows him. Meanwhile, the Scottish lieutetnant has also left the trench and approaches them. For the sake of the evening and their men, they discuss a ceasefire. All this time the French look at this with wonder and utter puzzlement, until their lieutenant joins in as well and they all agree on the ceasefire. The evening is spent with a mass (Gary Lewis is fantastic as the priest) and the fiancée (the very beautiful Diane Kruger) of the opera singe,r who has been there for this evening, sings for them. They also share food, drinks and get to know each other.

The next day they have a hard time going back to the normal routine of shooting at each other. They first agree on letting each other bury their dead and then start playing football until the shelling starts again. The Germans start first and so all the soldiers are allowed to seek refuge in the German trench.

The commanders of the three armies hear of this and all the involved parties are severely punished. If they hadn’t been so numerous they would have been shot.

What I liked the most about this movie is how emotional it is. Carion says in an interview that he wanted to remind us of this little miracle and to really experience it. He states that he is a pacifist and a humanist, in the sense of believing in human values. The choice of the three lieutenants was extremely important in conveying this. If I ever do a post on the most likable commanding officers in war movies, those three are all going to be on it. My personal favourite is the French lieutenant Audebert, played by Guillaume Canet. The choice of such a sensitive and fragile actor was a stroke of genius. The German Daniel Brühl is very good too, and so is the Scottish actor Alex Ferns, but they do not have the versatility of Canet. Lieutenant Audebert is a very determined but just and utterly emotional commander. He throws up at the beginning of the battle but still manges to give strength to his people, to guide them. Apart from Platoon’s Sgt Elias, Audebert is the most touching soldier I have ever seen. Brühl as Horstmayer is the most complex of the three, the only one who speaks all three languages and changes considerably during the movie. Ferns as Gordon is the one that men would want as their mate.

An absolutely outstanding aspect of the movie is the way it renders the differences of the trenches that do mirror the differences of the mentalities of the parties involved. This might seem clichéd for an outsider but if you are familiar with the cultures of those countries and know something about the life in the trenches you will notice how highly accurate it is.

The British trenches had the reputation of being very shoddy and muddy, whereas the Germans transformed theirs into real homes. The French on their side had the best food and coffee. The trench system is very complicated and the narrow steep walls didn’t allow outside orientation, that’s why they had a system of signs that showed them where which enemy was. We see the sign “Rosbif land” in the French and “Froggy trench” in the Scottish trench which is very accurate and funny.

It is after all also a humorous movie, especially in the French and the Scottish parts. The Germans are shown as more sober. One of the nicest touches of the movie is the story of the trench cat. Each trench believes the ginger tom is theirs. At the end of the movie the cat is caught with a bit of cardboard around the neck. He has become a messenger between the trenches and is duly  arrested for high treason.

If someone wanted to get familiar with war movies or never has seen one,  Merry Christmas is the war movie I would recommend he or she should watch. There is everything in it: tears and laughter, despair and hope, misery and joy, combat and trench life, criticism of the high command, class differences and a love story thrown in for good measure. 5/5

I couldn’t find an English trailer and attached a scene instead.

And the original trailer.

A Midnight Clear (1992) Christmas in War Movies II

Ardennes Forest, December 1944, just after the Battle of the Bulge. A small intelligence unit is sent to an abandoned estate in the forest to do some reconnaissance. The men all have an IQ above 150 and have been chose especially for this unit. While staying at the house they encounter a small group of German soldiers who want to surrender. They have just returned from the Eastern front, happy to have survived and war weary. They don’t see any sense in fighting anymore. During an evening of truce the two parties exchange Christmas gifts and sing their respective Christmas songs. The time before the two parties meet is the best part in the movie. It is quite spooky. The men, surrounded by the ghostly winter forest, start to doubt at some point that there really is someone, they only hear noises and voices that shout “Good night” in German.

The day after the Christmas celebration they are going to fake a skirmish in which the US soldiers will pretend to take the Germans prisoners. It doesn’t quite turn out the way they planned it.

A Midnight Clear is based on a novel by William Wharton (the same author who wrote Birdy). The most striking feature of the movie are powerful images. There is an instance where the group comes upon two frozen soldiers, a German and an American one, who seem to be dancing together. The icy cold winter forest is beautifully filmed. Another really great aspect is a flashback element where we see the young American soldiers getting ready for going to war and spending a night on the town looking for an occasion to lose their virginity.

I have read a lot of positive reviews about this movie. Funny enough, a person on amazon, who gave it high praise, compared it to Castle Keep and called it surreal. I didn’t think it was surreal, I thought it was at moments a bit forced.  This was mostly due to the character called “Mother” who annoyed me totally. Sure, he suffered of post-traumatic stress, still.

Since I have been complaining about the use of languages in Silent Night, I might add here that this is flawless in this movie. The German soldiers are played by German actors.

Another interesting element is that we see a few fine actors at the beginning of their career: Ethan Hawke, Kevin Dillon and Gary Sinise.

How would I rate it? All in all I can’t give it more than 3/5. I have a feeling, comparing my impressions with all the positive reviews, that I didn’t get this movie. Or is it too similar to Silent Night?

This is the only trailer I could find. Whoever did it found it appropriate to use Albinoni’s Adagio which we never hear in the movie. It would have been fitting though.

Silent Night (2002) Christmas in War Movies I

This review is part of a sequence of reviews of war movies that have Christmas as their main theme. There are many war movies in which a part takes place during Christmas or in which it is evoked but that are not the ones I’d like to focus on. I want to focus on those that really center on it.

The first one I’m reviewing is, as you can see, Silent Night, A  Midnight Clear, Joyeux Noël and maybe one or two older ones will follow.

The TV drama Silent Night is based on true facts. It is set on Christmas Eve 1944, just after the Battle of the Bulge. A mother and her young son are seeking refuge in the family’s hunting lodge in the middle of the Ardennes Forest. They walk through the war-torn woods, approach the front line and pass dead bodies, troops of soldiers and tanks.

They have just arrived at the lodge when two American soldiers arrive, carrying one of their wounded. The woman lets them stay reluctantly but makes them leave their weapons in front of the house. Elisabeth Vincken (Linda Hamilton) is not what you would call a patriot. She has lost her eldest son at Stalingrad, her husband is probably dead as well and the youngest, Fritz, would like to join the Hitler Youth which she wants to prevent at all costs.

While they are looking after the badly wounded soldier, a group of three German soldiers arrives at the hut and the encounter almost ends in mutual shooting. Elisabeth is a very strong woman, very determined and persuasive. After some initial discussions and negotiations they agree to leave their weapons behind, enter the house and spend the night there in peace.

I don’t think that anyone present during this Christmas dinner was likely to ever forget it. It would certainly be the most memorable Christmas of their lives. They sit around the table, share their food and stories, talk about the way in which this and the former war affected them. Still,  tensions do not subside completely. The German lieutenant has a particularly hard time to stay peaceful. He is bitter and aggressive, however, after a moment of escalation, he starts to see how absurd this all is and gives in as well. There is a final test that will show if these men have truly become friends in one evening. And if so, will they stay friends later on?

One  thing, as often, that truly bothered me were the bad accents. Americans speaking German with heavy American accents and then fake English accents. But cheer up, I have been assured that it doesn’t bother you if you don’t speak German.

The movie has a few very sentimental moments but it is overall not bad at all, no it is quite a pleasant movie that achieves to capture the spirit of Christmas. Recommended Sunday afternoon viewing with loads of snow, drama and some genuinely heartfelt moments.

I also included Silent Night in my update Children in War Movies List.