“Red Cliff” - John Woo (2008)

Red Cliff (Chi Bi, 2008), directed by John Woo, is a historical drama based on events that took place in China during the early 3rd century CE, as the Han Dynasty was dissolving. Specifically, it concerns the famous Battle of Red Cliffs, which was a decisive event during this time that led to the succeeding period of the Three Kingdoms. The historical record of these events is recounted in the famous Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms. However, to understand the narrative importance of the movie and its significance to Chinese culture, one has to turn to one of the most famous literary works in Chinese history, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century that is considered to be one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Guanzhong’s work was subsequently substantially edited by Mao Zonggang in the 1660s, and the work transmitted down to modern times contains a mixture of authentic historical information, the viewpoints of various original storytellers and copyists down the years, Luo’s viewpoint at the time of the Ming Dynasty, and Mao’s viewpoint at the time of the Qing Dynasty.

The resulting novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, covers a period from about 169 CE to about 280 CE, a period during which there was an extraordinary number of complicated battles, political struggles, and tumultuous shifts in power. Because of all of these events, the period occupies a significant position in the Chinese cultural imagination, including appearances today in comics and video games. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms as it stands today in English is over 1100 pages of battles, shaky alliances, double-crosses, assassinations, and counter-coups. Many educated Chinese are familiar with the entire story, but Westerners will be confused by the complicated machinations of the story. The Battle of Red Cliffs, which took place in 209 CE, is one key event during this period. It involves several important figures that play prominent roles in the larger Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the backgrounds of these figures are likely to be much more familiar to Chinese audiences than to Western audiences.

When the Chinese contemplate the period of The Three Kingdoms and the Battle of Red Cliffs, then, they are not only concerned about what actually happened, but also the mythology that has evolved over the years surrounding those events. Thus the period stands in much the same way that the Trojan War would stand in Western culture. In the Chinese case the mythology tends to view things from a preferential Northern Chinese perspective, casting southern Chinese and those who may have weakened that hegemony in something of a disparaging light. Director John Woo’s film production follows the main narrative of the novel, but he admittedly attempted more of a balanced perspective by drawing information from the historical Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms, too.

John Woo established his fame with a string of brutal action-packed Hong Kong gangster films, including A Better Tomorrow (I & II), Bullet in the Head (my personal Woo favorite), Hardboiled, after which he shifted to Hollywood, where he made Face/Off and other somewhat tamer thrillers. Red Cliff involved a return to a Chinese setting, this time mainland China, and it is said to have had the most expensive budget in Chinese film history. Production was undoubtedly complicated, involving some 100,000 extras and the participation of the Chinese army, plus distractions like the departure during filming of principal actor, Chow-Yun Fat. Just to tell the complicated story of the Battle of Red Cliffs, Woo made a pair of two-hour films that were released as Part I and Part II of the story. But for his version of the story that has been released to Western audiences (i.e. with English subtitles) the two separate installments of the original film were condensed and combined into a single two-and-a-half hour film. It is this combined and shortened version that I am reviewing here.

With all these complicating backstory issues, there is till an interesting experience awaiting even the uninitiated viewer of this film. Although the novel features a large number of important figures in the events depicted, there are four primary characters that are the focus of the film:
  • Cao Cao is the Chancellor, or Prime Minister, for the Eastern Han Dynasty in the north. He has recently defeated all the warlords in the north, ostensibly in his role to help the Eastern Han Emperor, and was now seeking to reunify the empire by conquering the southern lands. But his foes feel that he is preparing to usurp the throne and take over for himself. One foe that Cao Cao has already defeated several times on the battlefield, but who has not yet completely succumbed, is the warlord Liu Bei. Cao Cao was famed for being a highly cultured personage and an accomplished poet.
  • Liu Bei is a warlord who is loyal to the Han Dynasty and is depicted in the novel as a heroic figure. At the time of the opening of the film, though, his depleted forces are fleeing Cao Cao’s much more powerful army that is attempting to finish them off.
  • Zhuge Liang is Liu Bei’s chief advisor and depicted as a brilliant strategist. He is viewed as one of the great Chinese heroes and is credited with coming up with several innovations, including the landmine and the repeating crossbow (examples of which are shown in the film). He is also depicted as having knowledge of astrology, qigong, and an esoteric understanding of the Tao Te Ching.
  • Zhou Yu is the Grand Viceroy for the Eastern Wu King, Sun Quan. Besides being an ingenious military strategist, Zhou Yu was also a cultured person, with skills in verse and music. Zhou Yu’s sister, Sun Shangxiang, plays an important role in the story, too.
At the outset of the film, Zhuge Liang goes south to the Eastern Wu court in order to propose and form an alliance with Liu Bei’s forces in opposition to Cao Cao, whose army is headed in their direction along the Yangtze River, both via land and water. The climactic battle between these allied forces and those of Cao Cao will take place at Zhou Yu’s stronghold at Red Cliff. The narrative structure of Red Cliff is then built around five key “battles” or struggles, each successive ministory consuming more screen time than the preceding one.
  1. Cao Cao’s attack on Liu Bei. Cao Cao had apparently been battling and chasing Liu Bei’s forces for some time. Liu Bei was shepherding some civilians from Xinye that had been under his rule when he came under attack from Cao Cao’s forces. Liu Bei’s refuses advice to withdraw and instead risks further losses to his depleted forces in order to protect the fleeing civilians, thus showing his sense of loyalty and duty to higher principles. The fighting shown here is hand-to-hand and bloody, with various acts of heroism on the part of Liu Bei’s forces. Narrative Outcome: Liu Bei is established as an honorable, loyal and compassionate warrior.
  2. The first Southland Attack on Cao Cao. Zhuge Liang goes on ahead to the Southland (Eastern Wu) and convinces Suns Quan and his chief advisor, Zhou Yu, to join forces with Liu Bei. But Cao Cao is said to have an army of 800,000 men, while the allied Southland forces amount to about 30,000. After Liu Bei arrives and Cao Cao’s forces set up quarters on the Yangtze river opposite Red Cliff, they launch a surprise attack employing the “tortoise shell strategy" devised by Zhuge Liang. Again there are lengthy scenes of brutal, hand-to-hand combat, with arms being chopped off and blood spurting everywhere. The results is a stunning, surprise (but not definitive) victory over Cao Cao’s forces. Narrative Outcome: Zhuge Liang is established as an ingenious military strategist.
  3. The Typhoid Battle. Some of Cao Cao’s troops begin to fall ill and die from typhoid fever. Rather than burn the dead bodies, Cao Cao order them to be put on canoes and sent across the Yangtze to the Red Cliff (Southland) side of the river. Upon arrival of the floating canoes, some compassionate Southland soldiers begin unloading the bodies, and they too fall ill spreading the contagion to the Southland army. This germ-warfare tactic of Cao Cao has devastating consequences to the already sparse forces of Liu Bei. Narrative Outcome: Cao Cao is shown to be unscrupulous and to be willing to employ any tactic in order to win.
  4. The 100,000 Arrows Battle. The Southland forces are running out of arrows, so Zhuge Liang devises an ingenious plan to “borrow” 100,000 arrows from Cao Cao (the intention is return them by shooting them back at Cao Cao’s forces in battle). Using his semi-occult powers, Zhuge Liang predicts a fog is coming, and prepares boats made of straw to approach the Cao Cao side of the river under the cover of the fog. Cao Cao’s forces fire an enormous barrage of arrows which become stuck in the straw of Zhuge Liang’s decoy boats. The boats then return to the Southland side of the Yangtze river without the lost of a single life, and 100,000 arrows are recovered for later use. Narrative Outcome: Zhuge Liang reputation for military genius and trickery is further enhanced.
  5. The Fire Battle. Cao Cao intends to take advantage of a prevailing wind in the direction of Red Cliff to set fire to the Southland docks which will then overwhelm the Red Cliff side with fire. However, Zhuge Liang’s esoteric skills enable him to predict a crucial change in the wind direction, which will favor his side. Then with the help of some daring spying and delaying operations on the part of Zhou Yu’s wife and sister, more brilliant tactics from Zhuge Liang, and some heroic battling from Zhou Yu, the Southland forces rout Cao Cao’s forces decisively. Cao Cao is captured, but is set free and told to return to his homeland. Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu bid farewell and mutually agree that war has only destructive consequences. Narrative Outcome: the brilliant and civilized underdogs, Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang, are victorious, and the threat of Cao Cao is overcome.
With a number of antiwar verbal statements sprinkled across the film, Red Cliff has pretensions of being an antiwar film. Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu are shown at the end to be good friends and dedicated to peaceful ways, which is a major departure from the original novel: in Romance of the Three Kingdom Zhou Yu is jealous of Zhuge Liang and tries several times to have him assassinated.

But such antiwar sentiments embedded in Woo’s altered narrative are dramatically undercut by the extensive battle scenes involving utterly unrealistic Hong Kong Wuxia wire-work (aka "wire fu") action cinematography. This may appeal to the video-game audience, but it is essentially a celebration of fantastical violence for the vicarious thrill-seekers. It is also difficult to follow, at least for me, the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the battles, given the complexity of the tactical movements and the number of semi-important characters who are being followed. I consider this confusion to be a weakness of the film, but it could be argued by some that such confusion is an effective presentation of the “fog of war” and represents an intended effect. I doubt it. It is true that the great Hungarian antiwar film, The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonák, 1967) by Miklós Jancsó delivers its antiwar message by presenting a relentlessly confusing and dizzying series of skirmishes that renders war meaningless. But those skirmishes are dismayingly real and horrific – they are not thrilling and not meant to be. In Red Cliff, though, most of the battle scenes, bloody as they are, are arranged to show the inhuman swordsmanship skills of people like Zhou Yu, and this makes a mockery of any antiwar message intentions.

Ultimately these bloody battle scenes go on much too long. Despite the effort of cutting the four-hour film down to two-and-a-half hours, the film is still too long, because of the repetitive fight scenes. It probably would have been better for Woo to cut down these fight scenes and preserve other scenes that are known to have been cut, such as the tiger-hunt sequence.

But despite the outlandishness and unreality of the fight-sequence production values, there are some evident virtues in Red Cliff. Takeshi Kaneshiro gives a compelling performance as the crafty Zhuge Liang. Fengyi Zhang makes the character of Cao Cao richer and more complex than one might have expected, given the usual villainous depiction of that character. But most memorable of all are the spectacular crane shots. These include the overviews of Red Cliff, Cao Cao’s naval flotilla on the Yangtze, the tortoise-shell tactic battle (Act 2, “The First Southland Attack on Cao Cao”), and the great fire battle. But there is one breathtaking tracking shot among these that is worth the price of admission all on its own: Zhuge Liang releases a carrier pigeon, and it is tracked all the way as it crosses the river and flies over Cao Cao’s fleet on the way to spy Sun Shangxiang.

In the end we have to say that the epic scale of Red Cliff is at times riveting, but the overblown wire-fu sword-slashing diminishes the experience.
★★★

“The Cove” - Louie Psihoyos (2009)

The Cove is a hard-hitting documentary film about the capture and killing of dolphins in Japan. The particular focus is a “killing” cove near the small coastal town of Taiji, where thousands or dolphins are slaughtered every year.

The “star” of the film is Richard O’Barry, who originally trained the dolphins for the Flipper TV series some forty-five years ago. He began to regret the way dolphins were treated by humans, though, and for the past thirty-five years has been carrying on an individual crusade for the welfare of dolphins. Throughout the film, this single-minded campaigner is cast as the eloquent spokesman for all those who believe that the slaughter of dolphins is unconscionable.

The film narrative builds its case against dolphin capture in the following rough segments:
  1. It first identifies Taiji, Japan, as the rather sinister home of a secretive industry that is out to kill dolphins on a massive scale. Since there has been public outcry against the brutal slaughter of dolphins, they don’t want reporters or photographers to come there and report on what goes on. The general process is known, however. Fishing boats line up in the water near a pod of dolphins and antagonize their sensitive acoustic sensor organs by extending steel poles into the water and pounding on them with hammers to make irritating noises. They then herd the agitated dolphins into the narrow cove, seal it off with nets, and then begin to capture and slaughter them. Captured bottle-nose dolphins can be sold live to public aquaria and water parks around the world for up to $150,000. Dolphins of other species are slaughtered for their meat.
  2. The high-level intelligence and consciousness of cetaceans, in general, and dolphins, in particular is discussed, with interviews of those who have had close, friendly interactions with dolphins in the water.
  3. The film crew is shown attempting a secret nighttime mission to sneak into the killing cove and find out what happens. The whole thing is presented as a military-style “special ops” mission, as if it were undertaken by a SWAT team against brutal enemy forces. The mission is interrupted and aborted, however, by Japanese security personnel who spot the interlopers.
  4. There is a presentation about the degree to which dolphin meat is contaminated with heavy metals, particularly mercury. Because dolphins are high up on the food chain, mercury pollutants in the ocean accumulate as they are passed up the food chain. Dolphins often have more than ten times the “safe” level of mercury content (note: there is no real safe level of mercury ingestion, this specified levels are essentially rough guesses).
  5. A second “special ops” mission is conducted to plant hidden surveillance cameras in the hills around the killing cove. This is shown with live nighttime camera footage, and the soundtrack features lots of “roger that” and “copy that” communication among the commandoes. With the secret camera in place, they are able to get footage of the bloody dolphin slaughter that the Taiji industrial people want to keep from the public.
  6. The final section of the film includes more discussion concerning the stubbornness of the Japanese government and the insidious way they have manipulated the International Waling Commission by padding the membership with “bought” proxies. It concludes with a visual reminder of O’Barry's heroic campaign.
The Cove is a moving and skillfully made film about the callous way that innocent sea mammals are treated by the human seafood industry, and it is worth seeing by everyone. Anyone who sees the film, though, should probably contemplate some larger issues that are implicit in the film.

The Japanese fishermen feel that Western concern for the killing of cetaceans is simply a cultural prejudice. “You eat cows, and we eat whales,” they say, and that is certainly correct. In The Cove, there is a strenuous effort made by the producers to emphasize that dolphins are so self-aware – they are “almost” human. They are almost like us, so it is inhuman for us to confine them in aquaria and kill them. But it is pure hypocrisy for us to claim that we are more human, when we kill and eat other sentient beings. Anyone who has looked into a dog’s eyes can see the returned look of a conscious being. Why should we be so thoughtlessly killing and eating obviously conscious animals, such as cows, sheep, and pigs? I urge all readers to view the video Meet Your Meat – or try here, in order to see the way our meat industry slaughters animals.

The Cove goes on to make the argument that the dolphins are slaughtered in a cruel fashion and shows pictures of how the dolphins throats are slit by the Japanese fishermen. The Japanese government has, however, introduced procedures to make the killing of dolphins more painless. But just how “humane” is it to kill innocent animals in a relatively painless way? Should we feel satisfied with painless killing?

The Cove makes the further argument that the Japanese real material concern is that existing cetaceans are competing with their fishermen for the harvesting of fish – the Japanese want to reduce these competitors from the waters, so that they can catch and eat more fish. It is increasingly clear, though, that the current worldwide human consumption of fish is unsustainable, irrespective of how much the cetaceans eat.

In fact in the interests of our physical health, our global survivability, and our ethical well-being, it would be best if we reconsider and renounce the entire enterprise of killing animals of any kind. Maybe if you see this film, you will be one step closer to that beautiful decision.
★★★½ 

“Afghan Star” - Havana Marking (2009)

The freedom to express oneself is the most basic social right, and it is the lynchpin that holds an effective society together. So it is natural that oppressive, authoritarian groups always seek to remove that right from the people. British director-producer Havana Marking’s documentary, Afghan Star is ostensibly about a “Pop Idol” TV talent show in Afghanistan, but what makes the film interesting is its theme about self-expression. In Afghanistan, as in Iran today, there is a significant social mass that wishes to stifle all forms of independent expression. As Marking’s film demonstrates, this ignorant and stubborn mass, mostly men, comprises more than just the Taliban.

The story of the film follows the fortunes of four singers who seek the top prize in the nation-wide pop-singing context, named “Afghan Star”. Of the 2000 initial contests, only three of them are women, but two of these women are among the four principal contestants followed, and they all make it to be among the final seven. All these people want to do is sing songs, and that simple desire seems to have electrified the whole country, because by the time of the final show, 11 million people (one-third of the population) are watching it on TV, despite the great poverty of the nation (world’s fifth poorest nation).

The way contestants are selected for progression to the next stage is by simple vote via an SMS message from a mobile phone. This simple form of democracy, which places men and women, rich and poor, on an equal footing, is something that the conservative elements find alarming. The TV station, Tolo TV, is threatened by backward, conservative Islamic Ulema, and the entire wireless cell-phone network is threatened with sabotage by the Taliban.

Given Afghanistan’s varied ethnic makeup, it is natural that the separate ethnic groups will support contestants from their own group. So the four people followed in the film are various groups and regions:
  • Rafi, with his pop-star mannerisms, is from Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and seems to be Tajik
  • Hameed is a classically-trained musician from the Hazara ethnic communty, which is a Persian Shi'ite group from central Afghanistan that has frequently suffered at the hands of its more populous neighboring communities. The message in his songs is national inclusiveness and unity.
  • Setara Hussainzada is from Herat and probably also Tajik. Traditional Afghani music has always been influenced by Hindustani music, and her music reflects this flavor.
  • Lima is Pashtun and from Kandahar, an extremely conservative area. She secretly studies music with a teacher who has to sneak over to her house in fear of his life. Her choice of songs and her singing style is more conservative and restrained than that of Setara.
Much of the film follows the mounting excitement generated by the Afghan Star TV show, which in 2008 was only in its third season. The idea of singing on TV may seem natural to outside audiences, but this was a radical event in Afghanistan and generated national pride, enthusiasm, and outrage, depending on the outlooks of the people watching. Since more than 60% of the Afghanistan population is under the age of 21, the bulk of the country was innocently enthusiastic. These people had been living for years under the Taliban-imposed Islamic “Dark Ages”, and their only knowledge of the country’s past proud music tradition, which did include women singers, would only have been gained from stories told to them.

The Tolo TV station personnel are all very young men, who seem to be learning how to make TV shows on the job. Some of them are shown to be learning TV production from books acquired from overseas. (Don’t laugh, I graduated from a well-known film school and learned more useful information from those kinds of books than I did from my instructors.)

The narrative flow of Afghan Star is interesting, because the director makes effective use of stark intertitles to emphasize important points and effectively punctuate the drama. The camera work is pretty good, considering that the filming conditions must have been both difficult and very dangerous. One notable aspect of the film is the presentation of women without head-covering. Although women probably don’t normally wear head-covering in their homes, the presentation of such on a film would normally not be allowed in Iran, and must have been made the Islamic oppressors in Afghanistan quite unhappy.

But something even more notable happened during the filming of Afghan Star, and it essentially altered the original storyline that must have been in the minds of the producers. When the finalists numbered only seven, Setara was eliminated from the group and thus was given the opportunity to present her final number to the camera before bowing out. In a glorious moment of human self-expression and passion, she lowers her headdress and begins not only singing, but also moving slightly to a few modest dance steps. This simple, and by-our-standards modest, action generates a national outcry for her head. When she wants to return to her home in Herat, her family is even unhappy for her to come.

We don’t know if any men in Afghanistan stood up to defend Setara’s modest and entirely innocent singing, but the film doesn’t record any. Instead, there are a number of swinish statements made by men saying that she is a whore and that she should be killed: she is branded as “un-Islamic”.

Director Marking documents this gripping episode, but then drops the thread and continues with the talent-show countdown. Eventually Rafi is chosen as the winner. This is ironic, because he probably won (over Hameed) on the basis of his pretty-boy appearance than on his singing voice. He looks like a cross between Tom Cruise and soccer-star Christiano Ronaldo, and he may have garnered a significant number of votes from women. This is ironic, because probably most of the women who voted for him were unaware that Rafi expressed the same kind of repulsive, pig-headed criticism of Setara that seeks to deny all women the simple right to sing and dance in public.

At the end of the film, it is reported that both Lima and Setara have received death threats and need protection. Setara, however, has defiantly continued her quest and has made a recording. The actual Afghan Star TV producer and host, Daoud Sediqi, has fled the country and is seeking asylum in the US. Afghanistan, like Iran, has a long way to go before its people can enjoy the basic rights of self-expression.

Though the film is interesting and worthwhile, Marking missed an opportunity when she edited the it. She should have re-oriented the storyline and focused the conclusion more explicitly on the real star. Setara, whose name actually does mean “star”, was the real "Afghan Star" of this film.
★★★½ 

Jean Renoir

About Jean Renoir:
Films of Jean Renoir:

“La Grande Illusion” - Jean Renoir (1937)

Jean Renoir’s most popular and well-known work, La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion, 1937), is considered one of the all-time great anti-war films, but there is almost no combat portrayed. Instead, the action, set mostly in World War I German prisoner-of-war camps, concerns the escape efforts of several French officers confined in the camps. Made just before the onset of World War II, the film stands more as a testament to the brotherhood of mankind, than it does as an explicit depiction of the futility of war. But with the imminent threat of fascism sweeping across Europe at the time, the film’s ultimately humanistic message concentrates on the positive alternatives and avoids merely dwelling on the horrors of violence and suffering.

The film was an immediate critical success, unusual for a Renoir film, although it was soon banned by the invading German army, which attempted to destroy all prints. The period during the late 1930s was when Renoir, who was an experienced filmmaker in his early 40s, emerged as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. Besides La Grande Illusion (1937), other great works during this period include Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, 1936), La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast, 1938), and La Règle du Jeu, (The Rules of the Game, 1939). These films tend to feature multi-participant narratives that not only allow the viewer to sympathize with the individual characters but also see the larger scheme of things and the social issues that concern them. This vision, this view of humanity at large, is what elevates Renoir’s films to the level of great artistic statements. To reach high levels of artistry, Renoir was always looking to extend his technical mastery of film and employ new techniques. He was one of the early innovators in the use of sound techniques and in the use of extensive camera movements that employed deeper-focus cinematography. For a more detailed analysis of how Renoir employed these techniques in a particular sequence in this film, see “The Tour of the Fortress in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion – a Scene Analysis”, which takes place in the third "act" (second of three mini-narratives discussed below)

Renoir also usually obtained good performances from his principal actors in these films. Notable in this film are the following players:
  • Jean Gabin plays Lieutenant Marechal. Gabin was a rapidly rising film star in France, who would also appear in Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937), Marcel Carne’s Le Quai des Brumes (1938) and Le Jour Se Leve (1939), and Renoir’s La Bête Humaine.
  • Erich von Stroheim gives a mesmerizing performance in the role of Captain von Rauffenstein. Von Stroheim was a famous director in the silent era, and his work had been an inspiration to the youthful Renoir during his formative stages.
  • Marcel Dalio, who plays the key role of a Jewish soldier in this film, Lieutenant Rosenthal, also played a major role in La Règle du Jeu. The Jewish Dalio’s real, original name was Israel Moshe Blauschild, and both his parents died in Nazi concentration camps. He, himself, just managed to escape the invading Nazis in 1940.
  • Julien Carette plays the stage actor Cartier. This role was something of an homage to Charlie Chaplin, the viewing of whose films enthralled the young Renoir and inspired him to take up filmmaking.
  • Pierre Fresnay plays the urbane Captain de Boeldieu. He had earlier appeared in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).
  • Dita Parlo, a popular German actress, plays the German widow Elsa.
The story of the film comprises a narrative prologue, followed by three somewhat separate mini-narratives that have been strung together.

Act 1: Introduction. Lieutenant Marechal is assigned to accompany Captain de Boeldieu on an aircraft reconnaissance mission to overfly German territory. They are shot down by German flying ace, Captain von Rauffenstein and taken prisoner. When von Rauffenstein discovers they are both officers, he asks for them to brought before them, and he soon discovers that de Boeldieu is a wealthy and cultured patrician, like himself, and that they even have common acquaintances. This introduces one of the film’s thematic strands: the commonality that upper-class Europeans have that transcends national borders. Von Rauffenstein feels an instinctive affinity with de Boeldieu, because they share a set of values and a common code of behaviour. But he feels nothing of the sort for Marechal.

Act 2: Prisoner-of-War Camp N17, Hallbach. At this officers’ camp, de Boeldieu and Marechal join a rowdy group of French prisoners. Among the prisoners is a former music hall stage actor, Cartier, who is constantly mugging and showing off before the others. Another inmate is Lieutenant Rosenthal, a wealthy Jewish businessman who shares with his fellow prisoners the abundant food parcels that are sent to him by his family. All of them besides de Boeldieu are middle or lower class, and they feel a feel a sense of bonding with each other that they don’t share with de Boeldieu. This displays a second theme: the comradery shared by all kinds of people with a common nationality, in this case French. During this act, the high-spirited group of French prisoners engage in an arduous effort to dig an escape tunnel out of the prison camp. Just as they are about to make their escape, though, they are all transferred to other prison camps. Upon their departure from the camp, they are unable to inform the incoming British prisoners of the existence of the tunnel due to the language barrier separating them.

Act 3: Prisoner-of-War Camp N14, Wintersborn. The third act begins after an intervening montage sequence indicating that some time has elapsed and that the prisoners have been scattered and shifted across a number of different prison camps. Finally, de Boeldieu and Marechal find themselves transferred to the Wintersborn camp, which is located in an old medieval fortress. There they find that the commander of the prison camp to be von Rauffenstein, who in the intervening years has evidently suffered severe spinal injuries and burns so that he is unfit for active combat and has been assigned to run the remote prison. The injuries, in fact, have now forced von Rauffenstein's behaviour and manner to be even more exaggeratedly stiff than ever.

Von Rauffenstein examines the dossiers of de Boeldieu and Marechal and observes that they have both attempted numerous escapes from their previous prison camps. He informs them that escape from this one will be impossible and, in his stiff manner, cordially gives them a tour of the old fortress. This is an interesting sequence displaying Renoir’s artful moving-composition cinematic techniques and is discussed in detail in “The Tour of the Fortress in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion – a Scene Analysis”.

Marechal and de Boeldieu learn that their old friend Rosenthal is also imprisoned here, and they join up again and start plotting how they might escape from this prison. It will require a lengthy handmade rope and some sort of decoying action that will distract the guards. De Boeldieu, living up to his sense of honor, decides that he must serve as the decoy and sacrifice himself in order for Marechal and Rosenthal to escape. In the event, de Boeldieu is shot and killed by the reluctant, but equally honor-bound von Rauffenstein, but Marechal and Rosenthal manage to get away via the rope.

Act 4: Escape. In the final act, Marechal and Rosenthal set out on the road seeking to escape Germany. Rosenthal has a badly injured foot, though, and they have no choice but to seek shelter in a rural farmhouse that is tended by a widowed German lady, Elsa, who is looking after her young daughter. Elsa’s husband and all her brothers had already died in the war, but she sympathizes with the human plight of the two French escapees and takes them in. While Rosenthal recuperates, the two settle down for awhile, helping the young widow with the farm work. Though Marechal and Elsa eventually fall in love, Rosenthal and Marechal finally realize they have to leave, and they set out again on foot. They finally find the Swiss border and make it across before a pursuing German attachment can get them.

The narrative focalization of La Grande Illusion follows Marechal pretty much all the way through the film, and along the way it emphasizes key relationships with the following three people:
  • von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu. The working-class Marechal cannot easily relate to the two aristocrats, and the contrast between their strict codes of honor and his own down-to-earth humanism is constantly emphasized. Von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu live by an outmoded set of rules that have often had destructive and inhuman consequences. De Boeldieu, in fact, acknowledges that the world will soon do without people of his type, and he effectively chooses to bow out by sacrificing himself for his two “humanist” comrades.
  • Rosenthal. Marechal sometimes displays thoughtless antisemitic prejudices, but his instinct to take all people as human beings eventually wins out. This, of course, contrasts with the antisemitism that was having such terrible consequences in Germany at the time.
  • Elsa. Marechal overcomes whatever feelings he may have against the German enemy and falls in love with her. Again, the universality of humanism triumphs over local prejudices.
Renoir’s presentation of the virtues of liberal humanism – that “man is the measure of all things” – entails an external, universal, and “objective” narrative view of the action. The camera’s point of view is not personally involved and subjective, but is seen from the perspective of a sympathetic, but somewhat detached, “silent witness”. This is achieved by Renoir’s preference for medium and long shots involving multiple characters, often in movement. The resulting point of view is thus more global and all-encompassing. His approach contrasts with the existentialist mise-en-scène of his contemporary and rival, Marcel Carné, who was the champion of “poetic realism”. Carné’s work was atmospheric, emotional, and often fatalistic concerning the romantic longings of his individual protagonists, while Renoir’s work was more reflective about the larger scheme of the human enterprise.

The work of both Carné and Renoir induce in the viewer a feeling of melancholy. Carné’s melancholy concerns the eternal loneliness of the individual and the hopelessness of romantic fulfilment. Renoir’s melancholy is less personal and more reflective on universal truths affecting humanity. Here in La Grande Illusion, there is an implicit faith underlying the film that ultimately the universal commonality of humanity will overcome the depredations of nationalism, racism, and outmoded social class distinctions. Yet Renoir's view is not completely optimistic. World War I brought about the senseless deaths of 15 million people. France suffered 1.3 million battlefield deaths, and Germany suffered 1.7 million deaths on the battlefield. These people died because of stubborn adherence to the prejudices and traditions that humanism is supposed to overcome someday. At the end of the La Grande Illusion, it is unclear in the narrative whether or not the now-free Marechal and Rosenthal will return to France and rejoin the armed struggle. They have passed over the artificial line of the Swiss border, but they may not have passed beyond the artificial barriers in their minds concerning the evils of war, itself. When we viewers watch the film today, knowing the horrors that awaited Europe in World War II, we may be even more circumspect than Renoir was in 1937.
★★★★

The Tour of the Fortress in Renoir’s “La Grande Illusion” – a Scene Analysis

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?”

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.”
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.

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:
  1. Rauffenstein looks up, and points and says, “Your comrades are over there.” He then leaves the frame.
  2. Boeldieu looks up to his right pensively and then departs.
  3. Demolder looks in the same general direction and says, “Thirteenth century.”
  4. Marechal looks up to his right.
Each of these beats is deliberate and a few seconds long. After Demolder and Marechal leave, the camera holds its position a little longer and then slowly begins its tilt.

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.”

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.”
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.

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.”

Boeldieu answers, “I am very grateful, . . . but I could not have accepted in any case, sir.”
Behind them Marechal followed by Demolder enters the room through the door.
Rauffenstein, addressing them all, says, “Gentlemen, I hope that our little promenade did not overtire you.”

Marechal answers loudly, “Not at all, sir, . . . not at all.”
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.

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.”

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.”
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.

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.]

“The Lady of Musashino” - Kenji Mizoguchi (1951)

The Lady of Musashino (Musashino Fujin, 1951), writer-director Kenju Mizoguchi’s morality tale set in contemporary post-war Japan, again takes up the theme of disadvantaged women in a male-dominated society. Somewhat like the earlier Women of the Night (Yoru No Onnatachi, 1948), Mizoguchi paints a picture of moral decline in a society devastated by a massively destructive war and the invasion of foreign ideas and practices that are seen to be weakening Japan’s traditional cultural strengths. Although European filmmakers, particularly the Italian neorealists, had shown an increased interest during this postwar period in the everyday concerns of ordinary people, Mizoguchi’s concern for contemporary social issues, both in Women of the Night and The Lady of Musashino, does not fit into the neorealist category. The form of both these two films is still essentially theatrical and somewhat contrived. Nevertheless, both films take on a dramatic appearance of social criticism and depict shockingly frank situations involving women subjected to compromised situations.

The story of The Lady of Musashino revolves around the life of Michiko Akiyama, which is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who also starred in Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night (Yoru No Onnatachi, 1948), The Life of Oharu (Saikaku Ichidai Onna, 1952), Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (Sanshô Dayû, 1954). At the beginning of the film, which is set in the closing stages of the war, Michiko and her husband, Tadao Akiyama, referred to simply as “Akiyama”, have fled the devastating air raids of Tokyo and have made it to her parents’ large estate in nearby Musashino. (Musashino at that time was apparently a lush pastoral area in the countryside, but the relentless urban expansion of Tokyo has now rendered it a district of that city.) Also living nearby is another member of the extended family, Michiko’s cousin, Eijo Ono, and his wife, Tomiko. Since virtually all able-bodied men were serving in the military at this time, it is clear that both Akiyama and Ono are considered to be somewhat unsavory characters, especially to Michiko’s father who comes from a samurai lineage. Soon, however, the hardships of the wartime period take their toll (the horrors of the atomic bomb attack are mentioned casually, as if they were just one among many), and both of Michiko’s parents pass away, leaving their estate at Musashino to Michiko. After the war ends, another cousin of Michiko’s, Tsutomu, who had been a prisoner of war, returns and also takes up residence with Michiko’s family.

The intra-family social situation now has these principal players:
  • Akiyama. Michiko’s husband comes from peasant stock and is now a university professor. Michiko’s patrician father saw him as vulgar, undependable, and unworthy of his daughter. His academic interest in the Julian Sorel character from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, identifies him as a moral relativist and a man willingly polluted by new-fashioned foreign values.
  • Eiji Ono. Michiko’s cousin has become rich running a munitions factory, and is therefore a profiteer. He is shown to be a man of loose morals and almost exclusively devoted to personal material gain.
  • Tomiko Ono. Ono’s wife is brazenly lascivious and openly makes a show of how loveless her own marriage is.
  • Tsutomu. Michiko’s other cousin is younger than the others and studies at a university. He is presented as a naive, unformed youth subject to the temptations of sex and alcohol.
  • Michiko. Trapped in a loveless marriage, she suffers through the domestic turmoil and stands as the only person with any moral fibre.
As the story unfolds, conventional social values are challenged. Tsutomu begins drunkenly carousing and sleeping with many pretty girls at the university. Akiyama openly propositions Tomiko for a sexual liaison. Tomoko makes a sexual play for Tsutomu. And Tsutomu begins to lust after his older cousin, Michiko, who has similar, but suppressed, feelings, in turn, for him. But noone is very happy through all this, and all the lustful gestures seem like “frowns of a summer night”. Michiko resists Tsutomu’s advances on moral grounds, not because they are cousins, but because she is a married woman. Eventually, when she learns of Akiyama’s plans to run away with Tomiko and swindle her out of the deed to her estate, Michiko decides to commit suicide first and leave the bulk of her estate to Tsutomu. She poisons herself with government-supplied cyanide, believing that she has “saved” Tsutomu from moral depravity.

Mizoguchi films all these dramatic events in a style that is rather pedestrian, for him. There are none of his justly-famous long and well-choreographed scenes with extensive tracking and fluid pictorial composition. Even in the gritty, Women of the Night, there were at least some long, elaborate takes involving careful camera tracking and character movements. But in The Lady of Musashino, the film is shot and put together in rather conventional fashion As a consequence, the film, which actually does have something of an expressionistically suggestive scenario, fails to have the expressionistic visual presentation that could support the story and which gives some of Mizoguchi’s other films, such as Sansho the Bailiff, their powerful emotional evocation. In fact one surmises that The Lady of Musashino may have been shot in something of a rush. After all, Kinuyo Tanaka starred in four other films in 1951 besides this one, so the shooting schedule may have been constrained.

Another shortcoming of the film is the acting. Although Kinuyo Tanaka’s performance is characteristically excellent, the other performances are exaggerated and overly histrionic. The men suddenly become ludicrously drunk or so wantonly libidinous as to be laughable. The modern-day setting only magnifies these theatrical shortcomings. When we see a film that is set in a distant period, for example, we suspend our sense of disbelief; and we are more willing to accept schematic and stylized gestures on the part of the actors. But in a modern setting we expect more naturalism, and we have some minimal standards of realism that must be met. This is something that the actors in The Lady of Musashino fail to do. As a consequence, Tomiko and the men are so shamelessly selfish and malicious that the viewer may have difficulty accepting the seriousness of Michiko’s situation.

This brings us to a final difficulty, and that is with the philosophical intent, or message, of the film. At one point when Tsutomu and Michiko seek shelter from a sudden storm in a hostel, Tsutomu tells her, “love is freedom, and freedom is power”, echoing the presumed “immorality” of Stendhal's vision. But Michiko answers that though she does love Tsutomu, she must resist his advances, because, “morality is the only power.” Then she goes to say that there is something even more powerful than morality and that is “one’s word”. By this she means that sharing and holding to a covenant, just for the sake of it being a covenant to which one is “true”, is the most powerful and meaningful thing on earth. This form of loyalty is more important than any morality, she asserts. In fact, she thinks that by maintaining such a level of rigid behaviour, one can wait (or, perhaps, society as a whole can hold together and wait collectively) until public morality ultimately changes for the better and becomes more responsive to the authentic wishes of the people.

But this defining moral position expressed by Michiko, I claim, is not only valueless, it is fundamentally unconscionable. Her position articulating the notion that by swearing to a covenant – an oath of loyalty to an arbitrary public morality which one doesn’t fully embrace – endorses the notion that one should simply be the instrument of a higher power, without evaluating or comprehending the nature of that higher power. This is the same kind of oppressive ethic that was perpetrated on their own people by both the Japanese military government and the German Nazis – to worship power and moral authority, itself, and to hold loyalty to such authority as the highest of all values. You can see the same kind of ultimately corrupt manipulation of the people for the purposes of maintaining blind loyalty to a “Leader” being perpetrated in Iran today. And you can even see it going on in the United States by reading Jeff Sharlett’s chilling account of “The Family”, which depicts a fundamentalist organization insinuating itself into powerful institutions today. "The Family" demands unconditional commitment to a sketchily defined “Jesus” for the purposes of establishing an autocratic hegemony. This group actually celebrates the Nazis for aggregating power by demanding blind loyalty via an arbitrary covenant.

So perhaps we should not just assume that the sentiments expressed in the equally reprehensible message behind, The 47 Ronin (Genroku Chûshingura, 1941-42), which celebrated blind loyalty and seppuku (hara-kiri), were forced upon Mizoguchi by the Japanese government wartime sponsors of the film. Perhaps he actually shared those sentiments expressed in that film – that self-destructive acts of saving “face” are the highest form of behaviour and more important than life, itself. Any philosophy that elevates death above life and "honor" above love, however, is not the Sufi’s way.

It is said that Mizoguchi converted to Buddhism sometime around 1950. After seeing The Lady of Musashino, I would guess that, in view of his great films that came later, he made that conversion after 1951.
★★