In retaliation against the traditional studio format of assembling a motion picture, various filmmakers in the 1930s instigated the concept of composition in depth. Their concern was to eliminate the exhausted principle of expressing a story with a great number of shots, thereby abolishing the mechanical and impersonal technique of cross-cutting. By composing in depth, a scene can be executed in one shot, switching the dramatic emphasis from editing to the expressive placement and movement of both actors and camera. With fragmentation reduced to a minimum, the natural unity of an incident is preserved, allowing the characters and their actions to be evaluated within the total environment. Such an approach may suggest a more theatrical and stage-like presentation of material; however, due the kinetic penetration of the camera as a flexible viewpoint, the effect can be completely cinematic. This method of filmmaking leads to a condensing of events and ultimately to a crystallization of ideas and themes. Ophuls, Welles, and Mizoguchi are usually the names that first come to mind when speaking of the floating camera, yet it was Jean Renoir, director of the film under analysis here, La Grande Illusion (1937), who was one of the earliest and most successful demonstrators of this approach. Like the others, Renoir understood the necessity of ignoring the factory formula in constructing a film and devising his own style. He has commented with awareness about his art,
“The longer I work in my profession, the more I am drawn to mise-en-scene in depth in relation to the screen; the more I do that, the more I am able to avoid confrontation of two actors who stand like good boys in front of the camera as though they were at the photographer’s. It’s more convenient for me to place my characters more freely at different distances from the camera, and to make them move. To do that I need a great depth of field. . . “It is evident, even in earler Renoir films, such as Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) and Toni (1934), that he does not depend on editing to communicate the meaning of an incident. Renoir observes the action with continuity, alleviating arbitrary fragmentation that would undermine the reality and duration of a scene. His visual preoccupation is to force the cinema into a three-dimensional perspective by shooting through empty rooms to the action taking place beyond. With landscape scenes, Renoir maintained the unity of the setting, by using the horizontal pan as well as characters stepping into the frame from behind the camera. With the use of composition in depth, Renoir united his characters instead of separating them from their milieu by isolated shots. The result was a more explicit realism and derived vitality of characterization from the flexibility of the camera.
The action in La Grande Illusion prior to the Tour-of-the-Fortress sequence analyzed here has brought about a transfer of the French prisoners to a new prison camp. This new location is introduced in two scenes, the first of which is a visual survey of the camp commandant’s private room and his subsequent interview of the prisoner representatives in the adjoining office, and the second of which is the tour of the fortress grounds given the prisoners by the commandant. The commandant is Von Rauffenstein and the prisoner representatives are De Boeldieu, Marechal, and Demolder. Two of the prisoners, Boeldieu and Marechal, have had prior acquaintance with the commandant by virtue of having been shot down in their plane by him earlier in the film. The first scene in Rauffenstein’s office ends with his invitation to the three standing prisoners: “and now, gentlemen, would you be so kind as to give me the pleasure of your company.” He calls his orderly for his cap and muff, and the shot dissolves to the beginning of the scene to be presently analyzed.
Shot #1 (342 frames)
Action: Dissolve to the exterior of a door and what appears to be a courtyard of the fortress. Rauffenstein is seen in an eye-level, frontal long shot as he opens the door and moves to the right, followed by Boeldieu. The camera dollies to the right, following the two. Two German soldiers walking a guard dog enter from the right and pass in front of Boeldieu and Rauffenstein. Just as they pass the door, Marechal and Demolder enter the door frame and follow the rightward moving of Rauffenstein and Boeldieu. The camera tracks with the g roup as they pass behind an archway pillar and, upon reappearing on the other side, move to their left a few steps (away from the camera) down a corridor and stop in front of a group of soldiers at drill. The soldiers are now on the left side of the frame, and the four principals are on the right
Kinetics and Graphics: Throughout this shot the principals remain in long shot. The guards with the dog move diagonally from a medium shot in the lower right of the frame to a long shot in the upper left.
Comments: Though this shot features continual movement of the characters, the moving camera enables the frame to remain in relative compositional balance. The initial movement of Rauffenstein and then of Boeldieu to the right, anticipated by the initial placement of the courtyard door slightly to the left of frame center, is countered by the guards’ movement to the left. The two groups pass exactly in the center of the frame and move apart. The camera has begun to move slightly to maintain this balance, so that the courtyard door is now considerably more to the left of frame center. As the leftward moving guards pass in front of the courtyard door, Rauffenstein pauses slightly to wait for Marechal and Demolder to come out. Though this is a perfectly natural gesture, the pause serves to enable Demolder and Marechal to replace the compositional element filled by the guards, who are no passing out of the frame. The camera movement, too, has paused for this compositional replacement, and it resumes when Rauffenstein and Boeldieu resume their movement to the right. Since all four principals are now moving together to the right, the tracking camera maintains the balanced frame. `Rauffenstein’s pause is so brief as to be almost imperceptible, yet it provides for a fluid and elegantly integrated action.
The spatial aspects of the fortress are an important element in this entire scene, and Renoir continually provides a feeling for the milieu by creating a sense of depth in this and succeeding shots. The courtyard is lit with pools of light and darkness which, in combination with the relatively large depth of field of the camera, helps to achieve a sculptural effect. The foreground of this shot is in darkness, and the midground is relatively bright. The diagonal movement to the left by the guards and the dog brings them through this plane of light, adding to the perception of depth. The archway pillar, behind which the characters move, is also dark and in the foreground and abruptly draws attention to it (away from the midground area where the characters move). In addition, the pillar is sufficiently wide to occupy the entire frame for a moment. This serves to separate the action of the foregoing with what follows and acts as a hidden cut for the remainder of this shot. The elegance of this shot is that the sense of depth and the hidden cut are presented in a fluid and natural fashion.
Shot #2 (455 frames)
Action: Cut to Rauffenstein and the prisoners in medium shot facing the soldiers at drill. The camera angle has bee shifted slightly to the right, and its position h as been moved slightly to the left so that the soldiers are lined up on the left, the principles are on the right, and a long tunnel-like corridor stretches out in the background. The corridor is slightly to the right of frame center. Rauffenstein turns towards the prisoners (so that he is almost facing the camera) and says, “My Men are not young, but they are amused when they play at soldiers.” Rauffenstein then turns and moves a way from the camera down the corridor. The prisoners, one by one, follow him. The tunnel bends slightly to the right and then, further on, more sharply to the left. When each figure reaches the leftward turn of the tunnel, he disappears from sight. Just as the last of the prisoner, Demolder, passes from sight, the drill guards, wh o have remained immobile on the left side of the frame, present arms.
Kinetics and Graphics: The movement of the characters is primarily away from the camera, but the architecture of the tunnel dictates character movement that is first left to right and then right to left. This shift of lateral character movement direction enables Renoir to shift the principal direction of character movement from that of left to right in Shot #1 to that of right to left in Shot #3.
The initial static composition of this s hot when Rauffenstein utter his line is an inverted “V”, with Rauffenstein at the apex. The drill guard forms the left flank, and the French prisoners form the right flank. There is light on the faces of Rauffenstein, Boeldieu, and Marechal, the most important characters in this scene, while Demolder, w ho is closest to the camera, is in relative darkness. Demolder’s presence in this entire scene is primarily for the purpose of providing a compositional accessory to Marechal and extending the screen depth-of-field.
Comments: The use of planes of light contribute to the feeling of spatiality in this shot, just as in Shot #1. When Rauffenstein (the apex of the compositional “V”) leaves down the tunnel, the other members of the right flank of the “V” peal of one by one and move down the tunnel. The timing of these successive movements is quite deliberate and contributes again to the awareness of the depth of the tunnel. The movement of light and shade across the bodies of each character in h is turn also adds dynamism to the figure movement. On the left side of the frame, the lower part (foreground) is well lit, the central part is in darkness (midground) and the upper part of the frame is also well lit (back wall). Moreover, the end of the corridor – or the end of the part that is visible to the camera – is bathed in light. All of these lighting effects contribute to the sense of the fortress’s presence. The final movement of the drill guards when they present arms at the end of the shot draws the viewer’s attention from the extreme long shot of Demolder disappearing down the tunnel to the medium shot figures of the guards – a further enhancement of the feeling for the depth of the tunnel
Shot #3 (1295 frames)
Action: Cut to a low-angle shot of a stone stairway at the to of which is a doorway in long shot. Rauffenstein, followed by the three Frenchmen, enters the doorway and descends the stairs, moving from the center top of the frame down the stairs to the lower left of the frame. The characters come to a stop on the stairs (still seen in a low-angle shot) where there are two soldiers standing at attention near some field guns on the left side of the stairs. All are now seen in medium long shot.
Rauffenstein, referring to the guns, says, “I have twenty-five of those.”
Boeldieu looks interested and says, “Hm, really?”
Rauffenstein, continuing to speak of the guns, says, “I suppose you know Maxim’s . . .“Apparently the guns are French made and perhaps captured weapons.
Marechal interjects in a mock-sophisticated tone. “Why, of course, sir. Personally I prefer the restaurant Maxim’s.
Boeldieu responds, “Touché.”
Rauffenstein then leans toward Boeldieu and says, “I used to know a pretty girl at Maxim’s back in 1913, . . .” and then in English, “her name was Fifi.”
Boeldieu, also using English, says, “So did I.”Marechal all the time has been observing the formalities of their conversational manner with evident amusement.
Rauffenstein and Boeldieu now descend the stairs, leaving the fame on the lower left. The camera pans to the left to c enter on Demolder and Marechal. Demolder points to a niche in the wall apparently containing a small religious statue and says to Marechal, “Twelfth century.” Marechal shrugs and descends the stairs, moving to the left of the frame. The camera pan follows his movement so that he passes the camera level in close-up and is seen descending to long shot from a high camera angle. The camera pan halts when the entire length of the stairway is in full view. Near the bottom of the stairway, Rauffenstein and Boeldieu can be seen reaching the landing and disappearing through a doorway at the right. After Marechal has descended a ways, Demolder enters in medium shot in the upper right of the frame, following Marechal. All the characters walk into long shot. About half-way down the stairway, two more German soldiers can be seen standing at attention ion each side of the stairs, looking almost like fixtures in the wall.
Kinetics and graphics: The initial low angle view of Shot #3 has a door frame that is in almost the same relative position in the frame as the passageway frame seen at the end of shot #2. Moreover, the first frame I Shot #3 is virtually a black and white negative of the last frame in Shot #2 in terms of the graphics. That is to say that wherever a part of the frame is lighted in the Shot #2 frame, that same part is in darkness in the Shot #3 frame.
When Rauffenstein first stops on the stairway to point out the Maxim field gun, Boeldieu comes to the same step and Marechal stops on the step above and between them. Since this is a low angle shot, they form a triangular three-shot composition –
Demolder is directly behind Marechal and a German soldier standing near one of the guns is directly behind Rauffenstein so that both are obscured du ring their conversation. After Rauffenstein and Boeldieu descend the stairs and leave the frame, Demolder emerges from behind Marechal, and the camera pans to the right so that a new three-shot composition is produced. This time Marechal is flanked by Demolder and the German soldier. Here they are all on the same level.
Comments: There are five figures in the first part of Shot #3 (including one of the German guards) and Renoir forms two successive three-shot compositions out of them on the stairway. The first one has Boeldieu and Rauffenstein on a different level than Marechal, emphasizing their class differences. The second composition has all three figures on the same level. These situations are not symbolic; they simply contribute another moment to the overall psychological effect.
As in the end of Shot #2, Shot #3 closes with a view down a darkened passageway through which the main characters are departing and which is lit up at the end so as to accentuate its cavernous nature.
Important elements of this shot and, indeed, of the entire scene are the presentations of the relationship between Rauffenstein and Boeldieu and of Marechal’s awareness of that relationship. To that end Renoir deems it not necessary to give any visual importance to the field guns referred to in the scene. The general cavernous stairway is sufficient for this shot, and instead the camera concentrates on the verbal byplay of Rauffenstein, Boeldieu, and Marechal. Similarly there is no visual attention paid to the architectural detail pointed out by Demolder.
Shot #4 (980 frames)
Action: German guards with a sentry dog are seen in medium closeup moving left to right. The camera tilts upward to see the touring group moving in the opposite direction in medium long shot. To the right of the characters is a solid stone wall.
As the figures approach to medium shot, Marechal says to Rauffenstein, “I beg your pardon, sir, but was this little home built just to put up me and Captain de Boeldieu?”
Rauffenstein turns around stiffly adjusting his monocle and says, “Excuse me?”That to which he is pointing is out of the frame to the left. Rauffenstein then departs along the path to the left. Boeldieu then looks up in the direction Rauffenstein had point and leaves the frame to the left also. Demolder, who had been in the background, is now left with Marechal. He point out something off camera (to his right) and says, “Thirteenth century.” Marechal says, “Is that so,” but he is preoccupied with the fortress wall to which Rauffenstein has just drawn their attention. Demolder and Marechal leave the frame to the left. The camera lingers momentarily and then begins an upward tilt and a slow pan to the left. Slowly the huge height of the fortress walls are observed towering in the background. The pan ends when the corner of the fortress ramparts comes into view.
Boeldieu, walking next to them explains, “Are we your only guests?”
Rauffenstein stretches his hand out to his right and says, “Of course not! Your comrades are behind there.”
Kinetics and graphics: The principal character movement in this shot, as in Shot #3, is upper right to lower left, although this movement is countered initially by the guards and the dog moving in the opposite direction as in Shot #1. When the characters top to converse, th ere is again an arrangement of the three main characters as follows:
The characters are grouped to the right of frame center, producing a viewer expectation that they will relate towards the left of the frame and thus extending the frame psychologically leftwards. Demolder is directly behind Rauffenstein, so he is not visible until Rauffenstein makes his exit. Demolder then moves into Rauffenstein’s position so as to maintain the above static composition. After Boeldieu leaves, Marechal and Demolder move slightly so that they are in a frontal two shot.
Comments: The sense of depth, an important aspect of the scene, is provided in this shot by the camera pan at the end of the shot. The fortress wall that comes into view is considerably behind the pathway used by Rauffenstein and the prisoners. The wall is brightly lit, but the base of it, where there are German sentries and jagged rocks, is in dark shadows. The contrast between the brightly lit, monolithic fortress wall and the shadowy terrain below make t his a visually striking shot.
The earlier part of Shot #4 is simply a build-up for the subsequent pan. In order to heighten the drama of the pan, Renoir draws out the preparation for it. There are four beats to this preparation:
- Rauffenstein looks up, and points and says, “Your comrades are over there.” He then leaves the frame.
- Boeldieu looks up to his right pensively and then departs.
- Demolder looks in the same general direction and says, “Thirteenth century.”
- Marechal looks up to his right.
As in Shot #3, the detail pointed out by Demolder is given no visual importance. It is merely a descriptive statement that adds to the milieu.
The use of slow disclosure at the beginning of th is shot, a major cinematic device employed by Renoir in this film, is the only such use in the scene here considered.
Shot #5 (144 frames)
Action: Cut to a view through a doorway looking out on a fortress bulwark. The bulwark is a corner of the fortress wall, and one assumes that it is the same bulwark viewed from the g round at the end of Shot #4. We are now looking from the interior of the fortress outward. The characters, moving from right to left, appear on the bulwark in long shot and are seen through the door frame. There are German guards in the background looking over the parapet.
Kinetics and graphics: The cut f rom Shot #4 to Shot #5 not only presents a reverse s hot of the fortress bulwark, but with reversed graphics, in the abstract formal sense, as well. The final view of Shot #4 shows a dark tree in the center of the frame with the brightly lit wall surrounding it. Thus the center of the frame is dark and the surrounding area is light. Shot #5 has the center of the frame bright (the view through the doorway looking outside) and the surrounding area of the frame dark (the doorframe and the wall of an interior room).
Comments: This is an establishing shot for Shot #6.
Shot #6 (506 frames)
Action: Cut to a medium shot of the same view as in Shot #5. The frame is rather crowded with the three characters and not much of the fortress is visible in this shot.
Rauffenstein, after looking over the parapet, says, “A drop of thirty-six meters. No one will escape from here.”Kinetics and graphics: This is the only shot in the sequence in which there is relatively short depth-of-field. Demolder and the German soldiers directly behind the others are out of focus. After Rauffenstein and the three prisoners have left the frame, the focus racks such that the surrounding terrain over which the fortress wall looks comes into sharp focus.
Boeldieu then addresses Rauffenstein – “It was very pleasant of you, sir, to have shown us around your estate.”
Marechal, continuing his ironic polity, says, “Yes, it’s a really pretty castle, sir, . . . “ As Rauffenstein and Boeldieu pass towards the camera and leave the frame to the left in closeup, Marechal, continuing, says, to Demolder, “. . . so ancient!” – and then to himself as he follows the others, “. . . and so cheery.”
Comments: Rauffenstein’s statement that the fortress wall drops thirty-six meters leads one to believe that this is indeed the same wall seen at the end of Shot #4.
Shot #7 (774 frames)
Action: Cut to another doorframe. This time the door is closed and is placed slightly to the left of frame center. Rauffenstein opens the door from the outside and, moving from right to left, places himself on the left side of the door frame awaiting Boeldieu.
Boeldieu comes to the door frame from the right, and as he enter the room, he says, “I beg your pardon.”Rauffenstein follows im into the room, and they come to a stop after having moved forward into medium shot.
Rauffenstein says, rather confidentially, to Boeldieu, “I am sorry I could not have given you a room of your own.”Behind them Marechal followed by Demolder enters the room through the door.
Boeldieu answers, “I am very grateful, . . . but I could not have accepted in any case, sir.”
Rauffenstein, addressing them all, says, “Gentlemen, I hope that our little promenade did not overtire you.”Rauffenstein bows stiffly and moves to the right of Boeldieu. Marechal and Demolder also move to the right in their turn as the camera follows Marechal’s movement in medium shot. In order to follow this movement, the camera pans to the right and tracks forward. The pan halts when another doorway is centered upon, through which Rauffenstein is seen to move toward his office (in which the prisoners were interviewed immediately preceding this scene). Demolder and Marechal move to the left of this doorway, and Boeldieu stands at the right side of it. All of them look after Rauffenstein, who is trailing away in long shot.
Marechal answers loudly, “Not at all, sir, . . . not at all.”
Kinetics and graphics: There are three momentarily static compositions in this shot. First Rauffenstein and Boeldieu stand facing each other and b o wing for a moment in the door frame. Later they move forward and slightly to the right so that they are on equal sides of the picture frame. The third composition is the final view.
The movement to the right by Boeldieu and Rauffenstein after they h ad first moved left through the door frame is the first rightward movement since Shot #2. Character movement was begun to the right in Shot #1 and continued in Shot #2, but reversed at the end of the shot. Movement was to the left in Shots 3, 4, 5, 6, and the beginning of 7. Thus the character movement (with respect to the screen directions) is changed only when Renoir h as them alter their directions within a given shot.
Comments: The closed door seen at the beginning of th is shot is the first closed door since Shot #1. This means that the characters are now back inside the fortress interior. Renoir uses the doorframe and archway frame through which to view the action, both as a device to establish depth and spatiality and a device to center the composition. Doorframes are used prominently in shots 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, and 8 of this scene.
Shot #8 (883 frames including fade-out)
Action: Cut to reverse shot through the same doorway seen in the previous shot. Boeldieu in medium s hot is peering through the left of the doorway towards the camera, and Marechal and Demolder are looking forward on the right side. They are still looking after the (not seen) departing Rauffenstein.
Marechal, referring to the commandant, says, “Fourteenth century.”They all smile, but Marechal turns to one of the other attendants who has gone so far as to turn Marechal’s hat inside out in order to carry out the search and become incensed. He snatches his hat back, and there is a brief scuffle which culminates in Marechal keeping his hat as the scene fades out.
Boeldieu adds, “Pure gothic.”
Behind the , three German attendants approach them.
One of them says, “Do you mind? It’s a search.”
While the other attendants search the prisoners, the same man says amicably, “you know, your friend, Lieutenant Rosenthal. . . . He’s here.”
Marechal lights up – “I don’t believe it! Old Rosenthal!”
Boeldieu remarks, “I see his luck was no better th an ours.”
The same attendant says, “The Commandant has given me orders to put you in the same room. . . He says you’ll be better fed that way.”
Kinetics and graphics: The compositional symmetry and order disintegrate into chaos in this shot. There is none of the balance and stability of the previous shots and the progression towards chaos ends with the final scuffle.
Comments: This shot represents a psychological withdrawal from the discipline and austerity presented by Rauffenstein and the fortress architecture. The entire scene has been dominated by Rauffenstein, but at its end we see a return to prominence of Marechal and also the striking degree to which Marechal’s personality contrasts with Rauffenstein’s.
[Mike Ceraso contributed to this article.]