Tuesday, 31 March 2009

La Grande Illusion, Ambiguity and Anti-Semitism

Martin O'Shaughnessy revisits Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion in a contribution based on his recent paper at the Leo Baeck Institute, London as part of their series of talks, Jews: Heroes and Stars.

For a film that is now seen as one of the unquestioned pinnacles of French and European film-making, catching a great director at the height of his powers and pulling together a fantastic cast, La Grande Illusion has had a surprising and chequered reception history. Part of the reason for this lies in the necessarily implicit nature of its politics and the need to talk about the concerns of the 1930s in a coded manner in a film set in the First World War. Part of the reason also lies in the way the film explores the seduction of what it opposes (anti-Semitism, militarism, social hierarchy) rather than simply denouncing it, as less subtle films might have done. This is why some of those who loved it in 1937 (the film was a great success at home and abroad), did so for the ‘wrong’ reasons, finding nationalism in a film that was deeply internationalist in its spirit.

The Second World War complicated matters still further. Seen through the lens of the later conflict, the film’s sympathetic picture of Germans, its internationalism, its romance between a French proletarian and a German peasant woman, its exploration of anti-Semitism, all seemed difficult to swallow, with the memory of occupation, collaboration and Nazi atrocities so fresh.

The film had deliberately shown a stereotypical Jew (he’s in the fashion trade and part of a banking family that has bought up châteaux and land), but made him an overwhelmingly positive character and given him a core role in the narrative. But retrospectively, this strategic recourse to stereotyping could be made to look deeply problematic and accusations of anti-Semitism would haunt the film over a long period. The film shows a French aristocrat who sacrifices himself so that a proletarian Frenchman and bourgeois French Jew may escape from a prisoner-of-war camp, a story that encapsulates both the film’s refusal of anti-Semitism and the sense that the old, undemocratic order must give way to a new egalitarian one. The fact that people have often interpreted it in ways diametrically opposed to this ‘preferred’ reading underlines the inability of films to control their interpretation, especially when they work at the level of the implicit.
(Photo credit: p373. Permissions)

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