This fuzziness feels appropriate to Illusion, as its director, Jean Renoir, was a master at depicting moral ambiguity and the erratic nature of human interaction—in short, the fuzz we all live in. His movies feel so organic in their organization that one doesn't think of a "Renoir shot" in the way one thinks of images bearing the distinct imprint of Sergei Eisenstein, Yasujiro Ozu, or Jean-Luc Godard. The director's view of humanity emerges instead through the seemingly casual accumulation of behaviors. (Among current releases, Richard Linklater's Bernie may be the only heir to this style of filmmaking.)
Watching Illusion this weekend for the first time in seven or eight years, I was surprised to remember how loose it all feels. Most writings on the film have elucidated its thesis—that World War I marked the end of both traditional European aristocracy and "rational" warfare—and while its message isn't difficult to discern, rarely does it feel like Renoir is presenting an argument. An early scene in which a group of German officers drink to a fallen French commander could have played as a satire of the aristocrats' naivete, demonstrating the hypocrisy of the ruling class. Yet as Renoir and his actors play it, the Germans seem as humane as they do silly.
Erich von Stroheim, as POW camp commandant von Rauffenstein, conveys a complex mix of self-awareness and short-sightedness, pride and humility. His performance is one of the more pressing reasons to see Grand Illusion on a big screen. Von Stroheim, who perfected his craft during the silent era, always used his entire body to give life to a character: here, he gives von Rauffenstein a puffed-out chest, held-in chin, and robotic walk that suggests a lifetime's worth of experience. Renoir only reveals in the movie's final third that the character had been wounded in battle, but von Stroheim's meticulous performance makes one expect this sort of revelation well before it arrives.
Though he's one of the major characters, von Rauffenstein checks out for a bit in the middle of the movie and vanishes entirely for the last 20 minutes or so. Conversely, Lieutenant Rosenthal (Dalio) doesn't register as a central figure until the second half, but he comes to dominate the narrative—along Jean Gabin's Maréchal—in the final stretch. And the vaudeville performer Cartier (played by the similarly named Carette) dominates the film during several early scenes but doesn't remain in the story when several other major characters move to a different POW camp. To watch Grand Illusion is to be carried along with the current—or what one of the officer characters calls the tide of history. Reflection, the movie argues, comes only with hindsight.