So incisive and troubling did the Nazis find Jean Renoir’s indictment of war and his embrace of the shared culture of Europe, that when the Wehrmacht invaded France and occupied Paris in the spring of 1940, Renoir’s film La Grande Illusion was among the first cultural artifacts Nazi officials confiscated…

The Great War was a catastrophe for Europe. The Central Powers—Austria-Hungary, Germany, Turkey, and Bulgaria—mobilized almost 23 million troops and suffered 3,410,000 men killed. Total casualties, of course, were much higher. According to data compiled in The Times of London, Austria-Hungary sustained 4,042,817 casualties, while Germany endured losses totaling 6,385,000, Bulgaria 1,264,448, and Turkey 948,477. In losing the war, the Central Powers had a casualty rate of 55 percent. The Allies hardly fared better in winning it. France suffered 3,845,500 casualties, including 1,039,600 dead. Great Britain totaled 2,960, 616 casualties with 851,117 dead. Russia experienced the worst losses: 9.15 million casualties and 1.7 million dead.[1] In addition, estimates suggest that the influenza pandemic, which began in 1918, killed at least 30 and perhaps as many as 100 million persons. It was, said George Newman, Chief Medical Officer of the British Ministry of Health, “one of the great scourges of our time, a pestilence which affected the well-being of millions of men and women and destroyed more human lives in a few months than did the European war in five years.”[2] But numbers alone cannot convey the tragic extent of these losses. Behind each statistic is a man, a family, and a community left to mourn. Those who survived the bloodshed, whether civilians or combatants, had to try to rebuild their shattered lives. Many could not.

Historians have long regarded the Great War as the defining event in the history of the twentieth century. The war changed everything. It toppled the old empires in Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey; the British Empire alone survived. Yet, the war bankrupted England itself. The war nearly destroyed Belgium and France, where most of the fighting on the Western Front took place. The Treaty of Versailles ravaged Germany, enraged the German people, led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, and to the coming of the Second World War. At the same time, the war transformed the United States into global economic power and made possible the Bolshevik Revolution from whence the Soviet Union emerged. Finally, and perhaps most important, the Great War devastated a generation, leaving not only social, political, and economic, but also spiritual, chaos in its wake. That spiritual crisis is the moral, intellectual, and cultural legacy of the war.

The war destroyed the hope that civilization in the West was making inexorable progress toward the creation of a more rational, more just, and more enlightened world. The post-war generation no longer assumed that material and moral progress were inevitable, or even possible. The war instead caused thoughtful men and women to wonder at the magnitude of human ruthlessness and hatred. How could sensible people speak of the inviolability of human life and the sanctity of the individual when war had transformed Europe into a slaughter-house? How could they any longer accept the primacy of reason when they had witnessed the spectacle of the wealthiest and most advanced nations on earth tearing themselves to pieces in a festival of organized violence? In many respects, the war marked the death of old Europe. It seemed that Western Civilization had lost its vitality and its meaning, and was poised on the threshold of collapse. Confidence in the perfectibility of man and assurance of European supremacy had evaporated. In their place emerged a sense that civilization was fragile, vulnerable, and mortal. Despite their extraordinary accomplishments, Europeans in 1918 had to accept the sad truth that they had outdone in savagery the barbarians of all previous ages.

No film about the war depicts the ruin of the old order more poignantly than Jean Renoir’s classic La Grande Illusion, released in 1937. The son of the Impressionist painter, Auguste Renoir, Jean became a filmmaker of international renown. During the First World War, he served in the cavalry until a severe leg wound, which left him with a permanent limp temporarily put him out of action. After a long recuperation, he returned to the service as a reconnaissance pilot. His affiliation with the Popular Front and his sympathy for the French Communist Party during the 1930s notwithstanding, Renoir produced a thoughtful and sensitive meditation on the death of the old European order.

The Nazis certainly thought so. So incisive and troubling did they find Renoir’s indictment of war and his embrace of the shared culture of Europe that when the Wehrmacht invaded France and occupied Paris in the spring of 1940, La Grande Illusion was among the first cultural artifacts Nazi officials confiscated. “Cinematic Public Enemy No. One,” according to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, the film was itself almost a casualty of war. Its history adds to the mystique, for it reflects the changing military fortunes and political climate of the twentieth century.

For many years, film scholars assumed that an Allied air raid in 1942 had destroyed the original negative print. But as Stuart Klawans reported in The Nation, a German film archivist named Dr. Frank Hensel, then a Nazi officer serving in Paris, had already spirited the negative to the Reichsfilmarchiv in Berlin for safe keeping. Since the Reichsfilmarchiv was in the Soviet zone of occupation, the Russians took possession of the film after the Second World War, and the print ended up in Moscow. When, during a brief thaw in the Cold War, the Russians and French exchanged some films in the mid-1960s, La Grande Illusion was among them. It ended up in the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. Because everyone assumed that the original had been destroyed, it took more than thirty years, until 1999, for French archivists to discover that the original film had come back into their possession.[3]

Emphasizing the primacy of human relationships over class identity and national antagonism, La Grande Illusion offers both a hopeful and a pessimistic vision; it is at one elegiac and tragic. Although war has shattered European civilization, Renoir maintains that people are still capable of treating each other with decency and compassion. There is no need to make enemies in war. Shared values and a common humanity are bonds stronger than politics and nationality. At the same time, the film rails against human folly, which is often animated and exaggerated by nationalist hatreds and the will to power. However artificial they may be, the divisions of class and nationality are real, and not easily overcome.

The narrative focuses on the plot of French prisoners of war to escape the fortress-prison in which the Germans have incarcerated them. The camp is a microcosm of Europe. The attempt requires cooperation among men of different nations, classes, and religions; Russians, English, and French, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic must work together to achieve a common goal. The commandant, the aristocrat Hauptmann von Rauffenstein, treats his charges more as guests than as captives. He is an old-fashioned gentleman who believes that the prisoners will not try to escape since they have given their word not to do so. A former pilot, von Rauffenstein has fractured his spine in a crash. Symbolizing the condition to which the war has reduced the European aristocracy, von Rauffenstein’s body is held together by a brace. He is a broken man.

His counterpart, whom he befriends, is the French aristocrat, le Captaine de Boledieu. Von Rauffenstein and Boldieu share ideals, values, and code of conduct. They even have common acquaintances. Moving effortlessly between languages, they speak to each other at some times in German, at other times in French, and even, on occasion, in English. A man of refined tastes and cosmopolitan sensibilities, von Rauffenstein is beguiled not by a strident German nationalism, but by the sentimental illusion—only one of many that Renoir tried to dispel—of gentlemanliness and chivalry, which the war has destroyed. His sense of honor, civility, and friendship are as much casualties of war as the wounded and the dead. Not cynical but more realistic, de Boldieu knows better. “Neither you nor I can stop the march of time,” he tells von Rauffenstein. De Boldieu understands that the world now belongs to the commoners. It changed hands not, as von Rauffenstein thinks, with the French Revolution, but when the gentlemen who ruled Europe abandoned their principles and declared war on one another. The old order may be dying, but for de Boldieu it is the aristocracy that bears most of the responsibility for killing it.

A more venal pair of aristocrats are Generals Paul Mireau and George Broulard in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), based on the Canadian writer Humphrey Cobb’s novel.[4] Banned from being shown in France until 1975, Paths of Glory is loosely based on the Battle of Verdun, which Renoir also referenced in La Grande Illusion. But unlike Renoir’s film, in Paths of Glory there is an expansive disparity between those who take orders and those who give them. The military hierarchy recapitulates the social hierarchy that held sway in peacetime. Examining those differences, the film becomes a meditation on injustice.

General Broulard is as cultivated as are von Rauffenstein and de Boldieu, but Broulard is cunning, manipulative, unprincipled, deceitful, and ruthless. General Mireau is arrogant, stupid, and inhumane. He has established his headquarters in a luxurious chateau (at the beginning of the film Broulard makes a point of complimenting him on the decor), which contrasts with the miserable condition of the men in the trenches. Mireau may lavish praise upon the troops under his command, but he is physically and emotionally isolated from them. He does not know them and does not want to. The clichés and platitudes he utters to encourage their fighting spirit—“Are you ready to kill more Germans today?” he repeatedly asks––barely conceal the disdain that he feels. Enthralled by a dream of personal and professional aggrandizement, Mireau allows Broulard to persuade him to launch an assault against the Ant Hill (in the novel the objective is called “The Pimple”), an impregnable German stronghold.

When the attack predictably ends in disaster, Mireau is humiliated and enraged. He orders French batteries to target his own men who, under withering machine gun and artillery fire, fail to advance. Afterward, he insists that the plan failed not because it was ill-conceived, not because it required men to do the impossible, but because the soldiers are cowards. Saving their own wretched lives was more precious to them than preserving Mireau’s reputation and advancing his career. “They have skim milk in their veins instead of blood,” he complains at a meeting with General Broulard and Colonel Dax, the regimental commander who led the attack. It is an “incontestable fact,” Mireau continues, that the men “are scum, the whole rotten regiment, a pack of sneaking, whining, tail-dragging curs.” If the attack were really impossible, he reasons, the proof would be the dead bodies of the soldiers lying at the bottom of the trenches. Since the men are still alive, logic dictates that the attack was feasible. Had the men been more willing to sacrifice themselves to carry out their orders, they would have captured the Ant Hill.

Mireau initially proposes that one hundred men be tried under penalty of death for cowardice in the face of the enemy. Ever conscious of bad publicity, Broulard suggests they limit the number to a dozen. Mireau at last, and only under duress, reluctantly agrees to put three men, one from each regiment to be selected at random, on trial. The trial itself is a farce. The judges and the prosecution, which Mireau’s sycophantic aide Major Saint-Auban conducts, do not offer even the pretense of justice. The accused, Private Maurice Ferol, Corporal Philippe Paris, and Private Pierre Arnaud, are scapegoats for Mireau’s incompetence. They are convicted and condemned to death.

Their crime, asserts Saint-Auban, is a stain on the flag of France. The entire nation cries out for vengeance. Like Mireau, Saint-Auban invokes nationalism to justify an act for which there can be no justification. Earlier in the film, when Mireau visits Colonel Dax in his bunker to issue the order to attack the Ant Hill, he also rationalizes the decision by appealing to the honor of the nation. All of France depends of the attack, he tells Dax. “I’m not a bull, general,” Dax replies. “I don’t need a cape waved in front of me to get me to charge.” Offended at Dax’s implicit comparison of the tricolor to a bull fighter’s cape, Mireau objects that “patriotism may be old-fashioned, but show me a patriot and I’ll show you an honest man.” “Not everyone has always thought so,” Dax says. “Samuel Johnson had something else to say about patriotism.” Dax’s allusion to Dr. Johnson is important and revealing. As John Lukacs has explained, because the word “nationalism” appeared in English only in 1744, when Johnson wrote that “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels,” he meant what we mean by nationalism. Lukacs cites James Boswell’s comment that Johnson “did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many . . . have made a cloak of self-interest.”[5] Both the trial and the attack itself fit the description.

The legal requirements having been observed, Mireau is satisfied with the verdict. The men have been duly convicted by a military tribunal and have been duly shot by a firing squad. Justice, or at least the façade of justice, has been served. Even after Colonel Dax exposes Mireau’s treachery, and thus his ulterior motives for leveling charges, General Broulard issues no last minute reprieve to save the lives of the condemned prisoners. There will, of course, have to be an inquiry into Mireau’s conduct, but duplicity prevails. The truth does not matter and makes no difference. In their pretense and conceit, Broulard and Mireau are ideal representatives of the decadent aristocracy that has brought Europe to ruin.

Von Rauffenstein and de Boldieu are also remote from the men under their command, but they possess an integrity that Broulard and Mireau lack, and cannot even appreciate. De Boldieu, for example, continues to use the formal “vous” in conversation with his fellow prisoners, just as he does with his mother and his wife. His formality may limit the intimacy of his relationships, but the sacrifice of his life for his men also makes possible their escape and reveals the nobility of his character. It is analogous to the large crucifix that dominates von Rauffenstein’s office, calling always to mind the sacrifice of Christ as recompense for the sins of humanity.

Distracting the guards to facilitate the escape and then refusing to obey von Rauffesntein’s entreaties, de Boldieu compels von Rauffenstein to shoot him. In a deathbed exchange, de Boldieu admits that he “didn’t know a bullet in the stomach could hurt so much.” “I aimed at your legs,” von Rauffenstein apologizes. Even under these anguished circumstances, both men are careful to maintain a dignified reserve. In other words, they behave like the aristocrats they are, stoic in the face of unspeakable torment and grief. “For a commoner,” de Boldieu reassures his friend, “dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and me, it’s a good way out.” During his tenure as commandant, von Rauffesntein has nurtured a geranium, of which he is justifiably proud. It signifies for him beauty, hope, and life in the midst of ugliness, misery, and death. When de Boldieu dies, he severs the flower at its roots, adding it, and himself, and the world that he loves, to the casualties of war.

Along with Colonel Dax, Lieutenants Maréchal and Rosenthal in La Grande Illusion constitute the finest incarnations of the new order. Maréchal, a mechanic, and Rosenthal, a banker, can only succeed in escaping the Germans if they cooperate. Maréchal must overcome his anti-Semitism and recognize how little being a Jew defines Rosenthal’s life. Although he is wealthy and proud, Rosenthal is generous with his comrades in the camp. He readily shares the sumptuous provisions he receives from home. So many delicacies can Rosenthal offer that the French prisoners eat and drink better than the German guards. He is a man, a human being, a good and trusted friend, who incidentally happens to be Jewish. Making their way across Germany to Switzerland, Maréchal and Rosenthal learn to acknowledge the differences that separate them while coming to share the equality of friendship. “Are you sure we’re in Switzerland?” Maréchal asks Rosenthal. “It’s all so alike.” “Of course,” Rosenthal answers. “You can’t see frontiers. They were invented by men. Nature doesn’t care.” By the time they are climbing the Alps to freedom, their common humanity has replaced class, national, and even religious identity. The same is true of the German soldiers who have been pursuing them. Maréchal and Rosenthal are no longer the enemy. They are simply men. The Germans lower their rifles and refuse to shoot.

In addition, when Rosenthal injures himself on the journey and needs time to recuperate, the fugitives seek refuge at a remote farmhouse. There Maréchal falls in love with a German widow, whose husband has died in combat, and promises to return to her and her young daughter after the war. They celebrate Christmas together and teach each other their languages. Their affection belies the hostility that separates their countries and the carnage that their countrymen are at that moment inflicting on one another. It is, provisionally at least, a hopeful vision of the future.

But perhaps that sense of hope is the final, and the most painful, illusion. Reality is grim and unforgiving. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” declared the English poet Thomas Gray.[6] Released in 1937, La Grande Illusion looks back at one war and anticipates another that was even more destructive and merciless. Renoir must have wondered whether human beings ever experience more than fleeting moments of clarity and sanity, whether they ever learn anything either from the past or from experience. Yet, even in such a world there are such men as Colonel Dax. Courageous, devoted to the troops under his command, sharing their afflictions, Dax nonetheless follows his orders and does his duty, even when he knows that the orders are ridiculous and the duty absurd. Dax does not prevail. He cannot prevent the execution of innocent men. He can only bear witness to decency, compassion, truth, and humanity. He can only behave as an aristocrat in spirit.

“Lies can prevail against much in this world,” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “but never against art.”[7] Both Renoir and Kubrick used their films to tell the truth about the nature of war and men, or at least to expose myriad untruths. In the closing scene of Paths of Glory, a young German woman who has somehow fallen into the hands of the enemy is forced to sing for French soldiers, who, at first, are unruly, lecherous, mocking, and cruel. Timid, frightened, and tearful, the woman sings “The Faithful Soldier,” a song about the perils of love in a time of war. Gradually, the soldiers fall silent and begin to listen with respect, and even reverence, to the song. Soon they are humming the tune, while the young woman continues to sing in German.

The episode turns somber, forlorn, contemplative, and heartbreaking. The soldiers no longer regard the woman as the representative of a hated adversary or as an object of sexual desire. Rather, they see her as a human being trapped in precarious circumstances, as desolate, terrified, and fragile as themselves. Feelings of common humanity and common suffering transcend the barriers of gender, language, and nationality. The music does not call forth the ardor of national pride. It is, on the contrary, a declaration against nationalism. Despite the madness and depravity of war, the men are still capable of expressing humane sentiments. Like Colonel Dax, they can bear witness, affirming that a fundamental sympathy informs human relations and a purpose more dignified than war gives meaning to human life, even as the war itself intrudes and even as they are again thrust into its fury.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[1] “Appendix 1: Casualties in the World War, 1914-1918, “The Times Diary and Index of the War, 1914-1918 (London, 1919). To place these figures in context, the following statistics indicate the number of men mobilized relative to the total population of each belligerent: Austrian-Hungary, 7.8 million mobilized; 49.9 million total population; Germany 13.4 million mobilized; 67 million total population; Turkey 0.99 million mobilized; 21.30 million total population; France 8.66 million mobilized; 39.6 million total population; U.K., 5.7 million mobilized; 46.4 million total population; Russia 12 million mobilized; 167 million total population. Reliable population statistics for Bulgaria are unavailable. See John Ellis and Michael Cox, The World War I Database (London, 2001), Table 6.1, 270.

[2] Ministry of Health, Report on the Pandemic of Influenza, 1918-19 (London, 1920-1921), iv. I have found two books especially helpful in detailing the history of the pandemic: Howard Phillips and David Killingray, eds., The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 (London, 2003) and Niall Johnson, Britain and the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic: A Dark Epilogue (London, 2006).

[3] Stuart Klawans, “Renoir All Over Again,” The Nation (August 23, 1999)

[4] Humphrey Cobb, Paths of Glory (Athens, GA, 1987; originally published in 1935).

[5] John Lukacs, Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge: A Reader, ed. by Mark G. Malvasi and Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE, 2005), 840, fn. 20.

[6] Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” in The Poems of Thomas Gray (London, 1814), 130.

[7] Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, “The Nobel Lecture on Literature,” trans. by Alexis Klimoff, in East & West (New York, 1980), 35.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a still from the film La Grande Illusion.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email