Title: La Grande Illusion
Release Date: June 8, 1937
Director: Jean Renoir
Production Company: Réalisations d’Art Cinématographique (RAC)
I doubt Grand Illusion was the first film about prisoners of war but it seems to have been a great influence on later films like Stalag 17, Bridge Over River Kwai, and The Great Escape. Thematically, though, I found the greatest similarities are with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Both films deal with the the slow dissolution of the European aristocracy in the early 20th century and the bonds of the military elite even across enemy lines. I had no expectations going into this movie, but came away very impressed by Renoir’s camera movement and storytelling as well as the strong acting performances.
Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is a working class French officer in World War I and Captain de Boëldieu (Pierre Fresnay) is an aristocratic flying ace who is his superior. They are shot down early in the film and held as prisoners of war by the Germans. In camp, they befriend Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), who is from a nouveau riche Jewish banking family, and is generous in sharing the food sent to him so that the prisoners eat better than the guards. The three men attempt many escapes and eventually taken to Wintersborn, a German fortress with high walls that seems impossible to escape. The camp commander is Major von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), an aristocratic flying ace who actually shot down Maréchal and Boëldieu but after injuries is reassigned to prison camp duties. Rauffenstein and Boëldieu form something of a friendship based on their shared nobility, although the latter is more aware of where the winds are blowing for the aristocracy.
The final act of the film depicts Maréchal and Rosenthal receiving aid from a widowed German farmer, Elsa (Dita Parlo). Here the unity by class over nationality is replicated among the working people. This film was made on the eve of World War II and Renoir’s message of unity and commonality amongst the peoples of Europe was an optimistic vision that didn’t come to pass. By depicting German characters in a positive light, he also seemed to be sending a message to a nation under the grip of Nazism to embrace their better selves. Finally, Grand Illusion is an anti-war message at a time when one was really needed that exposed war’s promise of glory and honor as illusory.
Title: Monsieur Verdoux
Release Date: April 11, 1947
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Company: United Artists
Charlie Chaplin must’ve seemed like he was around forever by 1947. He debuted on film in 1914 and swiftly rose to fame so much that he could co-create a film studio, United Artists, and have control over making his own pictures. Throughout the 1920s he released innovative feature-length comedies. After the advent of “talkies” Chaplin released his mostly dialogue-free masterpieces City Lights and Modern Times in the 1930s. His first true talkie, The Great Dictator (1940), satirized fascism and more clearly enunciated Chaplin’s own political views. By 1947, changing tastes and rumors of Chaplin’s Communist sympathies made him passe in the USA. He’d been appearing in films since 1914 and again those 34 years must’ve felt like forever (although present day stars like Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks have been active for much longer, so maybe not).
Monsieur Verdoux was not a hit in the US but found an audience in Europe and of course Cahiers du Cinéma put it on their greatest films of all time list. The movie is set in France during the Great Depression era and Chaplin plays the titular character who also operates under of a number of aliases. Verdoux is a con artist who marries several women and then murders them for their money. Chaplin tries to make the character sympathetic by having him be a bank teller laid off because of the Depression who needs to make money to support his disabled wife and child. But Verdoux is an evil person and no amount of wily roguesnish makes him palatable to me. When Verdoux is caught at the end and justifies his murders by contrasting them with the violence of governments at war, it feels more self-serving than a righteous critique of society.
The cast of this film is huge and doesn’t include any big stars although Martha Raye (later of Polident ads) and William Frawley (later of I Love Lucy) both appear. A lot of the performances feels wooden and amateurish. I did like Marilyn Nash’s performance as The Girl, a houseless woman that Verdoux plans to test a poison on until he learns that her story is similar to his own. Nash’s character the conscience of this film and the scenes between her and Chaplin are when the movie works best. The rest of the movie seems to be telling several overlapping stories with differences in tone that never really gels for me. I found it only moderately funny and the underlying cynicism rubbed me the wrong way.