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  • Historical Cinematic Space:The Architecture of Culture in Jean Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story
  • Graham Cairns

The Western Tradition of Realism and Spatial Unity: La Grande Illusion

Set in a German prisoner-of-war camp, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) is ostensibly a war film, revolving around three French compatriots: Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), Private Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), and the aristocratic Captain De Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), whose German counterpart is Capitain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). And, indeed, through these figures, Renoir questions the previous certainties of class, race, gender, nation, politics, and even artistic styles, all of which were all coming under sustained and critical scrutiny across Europe.1 But the film presents only the “vague ambience of the conflict”2 itself because Renoir’s chief concern is not conventioanlly thematic—the territories of nations formally disputed in World War I—but, rather, spatial: the territories of mind articulated through cinematographic form.

This spatial articulation is evident when the protagonists meet each other. Having just shot down the French reconnaissance plane in which De Boeldieu and Maréchal where flying, Captain von Rauffenstein enters the dining room of German officers and heads straight for the bar. Quaffing a brandy presented to him by an elegant waiter, who subsequently relieves him of his jacket, Rauffenstein orders a subordinate to check whether the French prisoners are of the “officer class.” If so, they are to be invited to dine with their German counterparts. The scene turns absurd, with the officers being served by waiters as if in a gentleman’s club in high-society Berlin. The atmosphere of upper-class decorum and respect belies the horrors and madness of World War I that had long been captured on film (from Vidor and Milestone to Ford and Hawks) and in literature (most famously in the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfreid Sassoon). Over dinner, De Boeldieu and Von Rauffenstein, who ignores the Lieutenant Maréchal, talk about the illustrious histories of their respective families. They reminisce about shared events and memories, and swap stories of horse races and aristocratic parties. At the same time, Maréchal strikes up a conversation with a German of his own rank, and their conversation revolves around the factories they worked in before the war (see Figure 1). [End Page 22]

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Figure 1.

However, in addition to introducing the principal narrative themes of the film, this scene also introduces the type of filming and spatial treatment that will characterise all that follows. Using a series of long takes, the camera documents the room and the actions within it. Each man introduces himself and then, in preparation to sit for dinner, finds his seat in a subtle choreography that allows Renoir to dolly around the principal characters without ever cutting. In this way, the space remains strikingly—and ironically—continuous while completely unrelated sets of actions and conversations occur. Renoir saw the camera as a means for deeper “realism,” an opportunity to capture the nature of the external world with greater fidelity than could any other form of visual representation then available; if used correctly, it could break down of differences between screen perception and actual perception.3 For Renoir, this translated into an attempt to reproduce, not just imitate, optical reality on screen, and was thus a reflection of what André Bazin would call the “art of the real.”4

On this basis, the analogy between the camera and the eye became central and the need to maintain spatial and temporal unity became key. The human eye might jerk or “cut” from point to point, but the mind behind the eye formed one continuous perceptual field, which (excessive) cutting in film actually violated. It was precisely this unity that Bazin, the most important proponent of cinematic realism, would praise some years later.5 Although he does not highlight La Grande Illusion as one of Renoir´s greatest films, Bazin did observe that it contains all the major aesthetic tenets that make his work “realist”—a mode referring to multiple aspects of filmmaking (acting, wardrobe, narrative theme, dialogue) but centered on this...


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