What Makes a War Movie: Thoughts on La Grande Illusion

How does one make a war movie? Do you show the blood, the guts? Is the movie about glorifying the war heroes that arise from battle, shaken but unbroken? Is it about the horrors of war and the depths that humanity is willing to plunge? Filmmakers have long had to grapple with questions like these … Continue reading “What Makes a War Movie: Thoughts on La Grande Illusion”

How does one make a war movie? Do you show the blood, the guts? Is the movie about glorifying the war heroes that arise from battle, shaken but unbroken? Is it about the horrors of war and the depths that humanity is willing to plunge? Filmmakers have long had to grapple with questions like these when making war movies. Before World War One, it was perhaps easier to glamorize war and its heroics.

But WWI was a monumental, earth-shaking, reality-shattering war. It saw the first use of trench warfare and chemical warfare, as well as the introduction of tanks, planes, and submarines into major battles. WWI was the first war to have been fought with motion picture cameras capturing its true horrors.

Along with the changes in technology and warfare, WWI brought changes in how war is portrayed on the silver screen. Men were coming back shell shocked – we know now that what they were suffering from PTSD. People had seen firsthand that war was not a fun romp through Europe. It had been hell. How, then, should it be portrayed in movies?

For Jean Renoir, co-writer and director of La Grande Illusion (DVD 213), the best way to portray WWI was to not show any battles at all.

La Grande Illusion premiered in 1937, to much praise in France. An estimated 12 million tickets were sold in France. It reached similar heights in the United States, becoming the first foreign language film to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. FDR declared that “all the democracies in the world must see this film.”[i] Nazi Germany declared it “Cinematic Public Enemy no. 1.” More than 80 years since its release, it still appears on lists of the greatest films ever made. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 97%.

Why is a war movie that shows no war held to such acclaim? Part of its appeal is due to the time when the film was made. Almost 20 years had passed since the guns were laid down at the end of World War One. The war was not fresh in the minds of many. Instead, many were focused on the economic recession gripping the world: the Great Depression had hit America hard, and was taking many European countries down with it. Germany, in particular, was struggling. Nazis had come to power. The world was on the precipice of war again. Two years later the world would plunge into World War Two. WWI was called the “War to End All Wars,” but barely 20 years separates it from an even larger, even bloodier, even more horrific war.

La Grande Illusion was a film about a group of men whose bond transcended the radical national identities that now dictated the world. Indeed, Renoir used the film as a lens through which he explored European culture before the rise of fascism.

Renoir very purposefully left the fighting out of La Grande Illusion. By 1937, every Frenchmen understood the horrors of WWI. He focused the film on a group of French soldiers being held in a German prisoner-of-war camp.  He wanted to rectify the fact that he had seen only one film – All Quiet on the Western Front – “giving a true picture of the men who did the fighting.”[ii] By focusing on the men instead of the battles, Renoir was able to examine the universal experience of men who fought in WWI. The class dynamics and prejudices that play out through the prisoners and guards rang true for many who saw the film when it premiered. There is little animosity between the French soldiers and the German soldiers: ultimately, they all know that the war is futile, and are not the fanatic nationalists of WWII. Indeed, many of the nations who fought against each other during WWI had previously been allies or connected through royal families.

Through La Grande Illusion, Renoir was able to paint an accurate picture both of the culture of the time as well as the experiences of men who fought. Ultimately, La Grande Illusion is about the empty frivolousness of WWI. The title in itself is in reference to both the idea that the war would end all wars, as well as the idea that the war was for a heroic higher purpose. These are the grand illusions that swept men into the war, and these are the grand illusions that the movie proves are not true.

La Grande Illusion is entirely unlike other war movies, and this is perhaps why it resonates with audiences even through generations with no memory of WWI.

— Written by Melissa Galvin, Media Services Student Assistant

[i] http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/76799/Grand-Illusion/articles.html

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/movies/renoirs-vision-for-a-united-europe-in-grand-illusion.html

Joyeux Noël: WWI 90 years Later

I’ve seen many WWI films in my time, even before we started this blog series, but Joyeux Noel is my stand-out favorite. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, it highlights what united the combatants, rather than what divided them. Joyeux Noel is certainly much more pointed than All Quiet, but it has the benefit … Continue reading “Joyeux Noël: WWI 90 years Later”

I’ve seen many WWI films in my time, even before we started this blog series, but Joyeux Noel is my stand-out favorite. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, it highlights what united the combatants, rather than what divided them. Joyeux Noel is certainly much more pointed than All Quiet, but it has the benefit of ninety years of hindsight, and the benefit of years of lasting peace.

Joyeux Noel, released in 2005, follows three different units in their trenches over Christmas 1914 (“joyeux noel” means “merry Christmas” in French). These three units are Scottish, French, and German, and the film spends an equal amount of time with each unit, never favoring one over the other. There’s not even a single language used—the Scots speak English, the French speak French, and the Germans speak German. As the film shows, even these differences in language can be overcome, because Christmas, apparently, is a language all Western Europeans speak.

In the days leading up to Christmas Eve, the three different units battle each other. Men are killed on both sides, and each suspect the other side of attacking on Christmas Eve or Christmas itself. Sitting in their cold trenches, the Scots begin to play traditional songs on their bagpipes. While the French enjoy a Christmas Eve meal and listen, a German private named Sprink, a former Opera tenor, begins to sing “Silent Night” (in German), and one of the bagpipers accompanies him. The two then go back and forth, singing and playing Christmas songs common to both countries. Sprink eventually climbs out of his trench and strides into No Man’s Land, carrying a Christmas tree and belting “O Come All Ye Faithful.” He sets the tree down as an offering, and the three commanding officers join him and agree to a temporary ceasefire.

What follows is basically a Christmas party, followed by a mass. The soldiers meet in No Man’s Land with food and alcohol, and the officers sit together, relieved but also sad. There’s a soccer game (the Germans win), and Father Palmer, the Scottish priest, celebrates a mass. All three units are mostly Catholic, and all are moved and briefly united in their shared faith. All in all, the ceasefire continues for several days, and once hostilities recommence, the units on both sides find it impossible to fight each other.

These Christmas ceasefires did occur, though apparently only in 1914. Joyeux Noel makes us question: How could the war have continued if the different sides participated in these ceasefires? The film’s Christmas truce forced all of the men to acknowledge their supposed enemies as real people, and not an abstract enemy, so how could men in similar situations go back to shooting each other once the truces ended?

In Joyeux Noel’s highly fictionalized depiction of these truces, the fighting goes on because the new comrades are separated. The Scottish unit is disbanded, the French unit is sent to Verdun, and the German unit is shipped to the Eastern Front. In order for the war to continue, in order for a victory, the militaries and governments on both sides cannot allow their soldiers to see the enemy as their friends, or even fellow men.

The actual reasons why fighting continued after the truces are more complicated, but Joyeux Noel doesn’t delve any deeper. It leaves us with a simple explanation, and a little heartbreak over the futility of the units’ situation. It is in no way a feel-good Christmas movie, and it’s definitely not a victorious war movie.  In a way, it’s a film tailor-made for the early age of the European Union. Joyeux Noel argues that more binds the warring European countries than divides them, and that what divides exist are surmountable. It’s a nice idea, but one that could only truly be realized ninety years and two world wars later.

All Quiet on the Western Front: Truth, Authenticity, and Universality in WWI Films

Welcome to the first post of our new blog series WWI on Film: 11 Films for the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice. From now until November 11th, we’ll be highlighting movies about WWI from our collection. We’ll be discussing common themes throughout the movies, attributes that make each of these films stand out, as well as … Continue reading “All Quiet on the Western Front: Truth, Authenticity, and Universality in WWI Films”

Welcome to the first post of our new blog series WWI on Film: 11 Films for the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice. From now until November 11th, we’ll be highlighting movies about WWI from our collection. We’ll be discussing common themes throughout the movies, attributes that make each of these films stand out, as well as our own personal thoughts and feelings and we watch the films. Our first selection is All Quiet on the Western Front (DVD 853)


When Carl Laemmle, the head of Hollywood’s Universal Studios, traveled to Germany to buy the rights to Eric Maria Remarque’s best-selling All Quiet on the Western Front, he can’t have been sure of success. In 1929, Remarque’s candid, unflinching novel about the horrors of the First World War had become an overnight sensation, not only in his native Germany but the world over. Remarque, a veteran himself, was highly skeptical that his book could be faithfully adapted for the silver screen, and had no interest in added romance or valor. Somehow, though, Laemmle convinced Remarque to sell him the film rights, though not without an unusual stipulation in the contract. Remarque insisted that Universal adapt the book without and “significant alterations or additions.”[i] The film was not to be a glamorous war movie. There would be no embellishment. Universal was not to stray far Remarque’s own truth about the war.

Remarque’s truth ended up being more universal than Laemmle could have imagined.

The film follows Paul Baumer, a young German man. At the outbreak of the war, he eagerly enlists, egged on by his nationalist schoolmaster, Kantorek. In the very first scene of the film, Kantorek uses all methods of persuasion to convince his pupils to enlist. He begins with passive-aggressive suggestion (“is a little experience such a bad thing for a boy?”), but ends with nationalistic fervor: “it is sweet and fitting to die for your country.”

The irony of the situation—that the older Kantorek will never be called on to die for his country—doesn’t occur to Paul until it is too late. The Army doesn’t view Paul and his classmates as Gold Youth, but rather as insignificant foot soldiers. Their drill sergeant is sadistic, and their training does little to prepare them for the horrors of trench warfare. Once they get to the front, there’s never enough to eat, and even the army cooks are more concerned with numbers and regulations than the actual well-being of the troops.

Paul’s most pressing daily conflict isn’t the Triple Alliance versus the Triple Entente. Rather, it is the enlisted soldiers—Paul and his comrades—against the army. His daily battles for food, for relief, or even for compassionate treatment at the hospital, all seem hopeless. This sense of disillusionment begins early in the movie, when Paul and his comrades fail to find a reason for why they’re fighting in the first place. The causes of the war are a mystery to them, and they can’t grasp why they’re fighting if “we didn’t want it, the English didn’t want it.”

By focusing on the day-to-day experiences of a common soldier, and ignoring the political machinations, Universal Studios created a film that appealed to almost everyone touched by the war. When the movie was released in 1930, frustration with army bureaucracy, the horrors of trench warfare, a loss of innocence, and a lack of a moral or clear motivation to fight, united men more than nationality divided them. Paul and his friends could have been American, French, or British instead of German. All Quiet on the Western Front was a film that, ultimately, advocated peace by showing the pointlessness of war.

——-

[i] Jerold Simmons, “Film and International Politics: The Banning of All Quiet on the Western Front in Germany and Austria, 1930-1931,” The Historian 52, no. 1 (November 1989): 41-42, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24447602.

 

Happy Halloween!

In honor of this spookiest of holidays, we’ve created a staff picks list of our favorite Halloween movies and tv shows. While some of these might not be explicitly related to Halloween, they all give off a generally creepy vibe– perfect for everyone’s favorite holiday. Corpse Bride (DVD 13291) I watch Corpse Bride every Halloween … Continue reading “Happy Halloween!”

In honor of this spookiest of holidays, we’ve created a staff picks list of our favorite Halloween movies and tv shows. While some of these might not be explicitly related to Halloween, they all give off a generally creepy vibe– perfect for everyone’s favorite holiday.

Corpse Bride (DVD 13291)

I watch Corpse Bride every Halloween because it combines three of the spookiest things I know—the undead, murder, and emotionally repressed Victorians.  – India

City of Lost Children (DVD 5637)

This isn’t a Halloween movie per se and it’s not even a horror movie. But it is creep-tastic and shouldn’t be missed. Everything about it puts you on edge – directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s obsession with dampness, the odd looking cast of characters, and the whole stealing dreams from children plot. A movie that you enjoy watching but can give you disturbing dreams – I’m not saying I know this from experience – is right for the season. Plus Ron Perlman, so it’s a must. — Sean

Coraline (DVD 7449)

For Halloween I like to watch Coraline (DVD 7449). It gets creepier every year and makes for a good Halloween costume!! — Julia

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (DVD 4711)

I watch this movie at least twice a year, once in the fall and once for Christmas.  It’s been a family tradition since as long as I can remember and I’m a sucker for a good claymation.              — Rebekah

The Shining (DVD 2168)

A Stanley Kubrick take on a Stephen King novel, watch Jack Nicholson’s descent into insanity as he takes up a job as the winter caretaker of an abandoned hotel resort in order to have quiet time to finish his novel. A classic and a must watch—even for those not inclined to horror movies. — Justin

The Descent (3850)

Claustrophobes beware! An all-female cast is trapped in an unexplored cave system with something else lurking in the dark. This underground horror movie perfectly exudes that desperate desire to escape from the depths of the unknown. After watching, you’ll probably want to steer clear of any caves in the near future. — Justin

The Blair Witch Project (DVD 24)

In addition to being a watershed moment for the horror genre, The Blair Witch Project was a watershed moment for 15-year-old me–I was so profoundly terrified by the film it would be three years before I watched a horror movie again. — Jean-Luc

SpongeBob SquarePants Season 1, Episode 13 (DVD 14168)

Cartoons are not the first thing that comes to mind when you think Halloween, but that would be ignoring some of the best content out there! If you want to watch something short and fun, but also a little spooky, Spongebob is the obvious answer. Also the part where Spongebob’s costume came off at the end was terrifying as a kid (and even a little now). — Judy 

Random Movie Monday — The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls

Every once and awhile, the random number generator picks something really… random. Case in point, this week’s random movie: The Topp Twins Untouchable Girls (DVD 6050). Here’s our description. Tells the story of the world’s only yodeling country singing and comedy lesbian sibling duo, the Topp Twins (Jools and Lynda Topp), who have inspired a generation with … Continue reading “Random Movie Monday — The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls”

Every once and awhile, the random number generator picks something really… random. Case in point, this week’s random movie: The Topp Twins Untouchable Girls (DVD 6050). Here’s our description.

Tells the story of the world’s only yodeling country singing and comedy lesbian sibling duo, the Topp Twins (Jools and Lynda Topp), who have inspired a generation with their politics and celebration of joy.

My only question is this: How did I go nearly a quarter century without realizing the Topp twins existed? I’m definitely putting this documentary on my “to watch” list.

Free Passes — See the First Four Episodes of Amazon’s “Homecoming”

Attention movie and tv lovers! The Media Services Desk has two free passes available for a screening of the first four episodes of “Homecoming,” a new show from Amazon Prime. The screening is scheduled for 7pm on October 29th. If you’d like to claim these passes, please present your AU ID at the Media Services … Continue reading “Free Passes — See the First Four Episodes of Amazon’s “Homecoming””

Attention movie and tv lovers! The Media Services Desk has two free passes available for a screening of the first four episodes of “Homecoming,” a new show from Amazon Prime. The screening is scheduled for 7pm on October 29th. If you’d like to claim these passes, please present your AU ID at the Media Services Desk.

Random Movie Monday — The Giver

Happy Monday folks! Today’s random movie is DVD 13980: The Giver. Here’s our summary: The story centers on Jonas, young man who lives in a supposedly ideal world of conformity and contentment. Yet as he begins to spend time with the elder, who is the sole keeper of all the community’s memories, Jonas quickly begins to discover the dark and deadly truths of … Continue reading “Random Movie Monday — The Giver”

Happy Monday folks! Today’s random movie is DVD 13980: The Giver. Here’s our summary:

The story centers on Jonas, young man who lives in a supposedly ideal world of conformity and contentment. Yet as he begins to spend time with the elder, who is the sole keeper of all the community’s memories, Jonas quickly begins to discover the dark and deadly truths of his community’s secret past. At extreme odds, Jonas knows that he must escape their world to protect them all; a challenge that no one has ever succeeded at before.

I’ve never seen this movie, but I read the book for class in middle school. As one of the activities in class, we had a secret ballot to assign each of our classmates one of the jobs in the “Utopian” community described in the book. My classmates chose me to be the elder that holds all of the community’s painful memories. I’m still not quite sure what to make of that.

Happy Birthday Jeff Goldblum

Happy Birthday Jeff Goldblum! An actor so fixed in our collective cultural consciousness that this: Became this: Of all the ways to commemorate the original Jurassic Park’s 25th anniversary, this was certainly the most… interesting. But anyway, happy birthday to Jeff Goldblum. Many happy returns, and may you always be memeable. You can check out … Continue reading “Happy Birthday Jeff Goldblum”

Happy Birthday Jeff Goldblum! An actor so fixed in our collective cultural consciousness that this:

Became this:

Of all the ways to commemorate the original Jurassic Park’s 25th anniversary, this was certainly the most… interesting. But anyway, happy birthday to Jeff Goldblum. Many happy returns, and may you always be memeable.

You can check out most of Goldblum’s filmography here at Media Services, including these titles:

  • Jurassic Park (DVD 4901)
  • The Lost World: Jurassic Park (DVD 4902)
  • The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (DVD 11582)
  • Independence Day (DVD 3111)
  • The Right Stuff (DVD 5190)
  • The Big Chill (DVD 1933)
  • The Fly (DVD 1505)
  • The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (DVD 5101)

Smithsonian African American Film Festival

One of the great things about living in DC is that we have this incredible city right at our fingertips. Case in point: the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is hosting its first ever African American Film Festival. While you do have to pay to attend a film screening and a … Continue reading “Smithsonian African American Film Festival”

One of the great things about living in DC is that we have this incredible city right at our fingertips. Case in point: the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is hosting its first ever African American Film Festival. While you do have to pay to attend a film screening and a master class, the festival is also hosting a bunch of free events.

You can find more information here. We’ll also be adding the free events to our events calendar.

New Movies!

Looking for something new to watch? Check out these new titles in Media Services: Feature Films: American Animals — DVD 16068 Book Club — DVD 16065 Happy End — BLU 16064 First Reformed — DVD 16062 Testament of Youth — DVD 16053 Gold — DVD 16052 Alanis — DVD 16051 And Then I Go — DVD 16058 … Continue reading “New Movies!”

Looking for something new to watch? Check out these new titles in Media Services:

Feature Films:

  • American Animals — DVD 16068
  • Book Club — DVD 16065
  • Happy End — BLU 16064
  • First Reformed — DVD 16062
  • Testament of Youth — DVD 16053
  • Gold — DVD 16052
  • Alanis — DVD 16051
  • And Then I Go — DVD 16058
  • Coherence — DVD 16059

Documentaries:

  • American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs — DVD 16067
  • Finding Joseph I — DVD 16066
  • War on the EPA — DVD 16063
  • GI Jews — DVD 16057
  • The Bombing of Wall Street — DVD 16055
  • Blackout in Puerto Rico — DVD 16060
  • Capitalism — DVD 16061

You can check all of these out from the Media Services Desk… except Testament of Youth. I’m checking that one out for a weekend movie night.