November 11, 2018


The Death of Europe: Two Classic Films and the Great War (Mark Malvasi, 11/11/18, Imaginative Conservative)

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.

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.

Trump misses cemetery visit as Macron and Merkel vow unity (Kim Willsher,  10 Nov 2018 , The Guardian)

Under grey clouds and persistent drizzle, France's president, Emmanuel Macron, and Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, clasped hands at a solemn ceremony at Compiègne as they marked the centenary of the armistice signing.

It was the first time since 1940 that leaders from the two countries had met at the historic site, where Marshal Ferdinand Foch, supreme commander of the western front, signed the ceasefire agreement with Germany in a railway carriage.

On Saturday, as the French and German national anthems were played, the sun briefly broke through and the chancellor rested her head on the president's. The two leaders laid a wreath and unveiled a plaque celebrating their reconciliation. They then signed the visitors' book in a replica of Foch's railway carriage, known as the Compiègne Wagon, where in an act of revenge Adolf Hitler forced France to sign its capitulation in June 1940.

"We owe it to our soldiers," said Macron afterwards. Symbolically, he and Merkel sat side by side and not face to face as the French and German representatives had in 1918 and 1940.

Posted by at November 11, 2018 7:55 AM