Wednesday, 11 April 2012


11/4/12, NFT1, BFI Southbank

1 hour 55 mins. A beautiful new pristine print. Smoking alert (they do it all the time; all the prison camp interiors are wreathed in smoke; but then that's the way it was).

A film I've been reading about for almost 40 years: Jean Renoir's celebrated anti-war film (without a battle in sight). Now finally seen, and a thoroughly satisfactory experience it was, if not quite one that justifies the five stars lavished on it by some critics.

One of its problems, of course, is that it pioneered a whole genre, the PoW movie, and many of the things that must have seemed startling and original in 1937 now look like cliches, recycled time and again in everything from The Great Escape to Colditz: the escape tunnel beneath the floorboards, the spoil deposited in the prisoners' garden; the camp (in both senses) concert; the officers-only, "escape-proof" castle on a hill; the unlikely bonding between the working class Marechal and the Jewish Rosenthal as they escape into the Alps and freedom.

It's great strength is that for the most part it's not sentimental. It's about class solidarity in the face of a common enemy, but Jean Gabon's beefy Marechal (wearing Renoir's old uniform: he was himself a pilot until shot down in 1915) concedes he'll never really be pals with the aristocratic de Boildieu. Meanwhile de Boildieu's common cause with the equally upper-crust von Rauffenstein (played by Eric von Stroheim) is suffused with the knowledge that their kind -- along with their way of making war in which fighting honourably counts for as much as winning -- are on the way out. And von R's aristocratic hauteur is kept fuelled with frequent shots of schnapps.

The great illusion is of course that war is bearable: it isn't. It's absurd and destructive and pointless, which is something on which both the French prisoners and their sympathetically-portrayed German captors (mostly middle-aged or elderly) clearly both agree. But there are other illusions. Honour is probably one. Interracial harmony may be another: everyone gets on famously weith Rosenthal, who takes transparent delight in his family's wealth and success, and keeps everyone's morale up by sharing his generous food parcels. But when our heroes bunk up with a black soldier they simply ignore him.

Not everything works. The musical hall performer Julien Carette gurns and gavottes unconvincingly. And there are plenty of unanswered questions, like how the mud-spattered British officers newly-captured somewhere like the Somme have their tennis rackets with them. But we were on balance admiring.

John Birt sat in solitary splendour in the row immediately in front of us.

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