Never such innocence, / Never before or since
– from “MCMXIV,” by Philip Larkin (1922-1985)
Today, Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence and the founding of our nation, a splash of resounding, indelible rhetoric in the midst of a bloody armed conflict. But earlier this week marked a more dubious milestone, the 100th anniversary of an event with earth-shattering implications: for it was on June 28, 1914 that Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, kicking off the diplomatic crisis that would quickly turn into the churning, destructive four-year grindstone that was World War I. It was a major anniversary that seemed to pass with relatively little notice: A.O. Scott wrote an exceptional piece for the New York Times on the war’s cultural legacy; and in a few short hours, France and Germany will metaphorically revisit their century-old conflict, this time on the fields of Maracanã rather than Verdun. But otherwise, it seems an occasion no one is too sure how to mark.
Not to put too flippant a spin on what should be a somber topic, but at The Best Films of Our Lives we always find a movie an appropriate method of recognition and deliberation. WWI films often get lost in the deluge of material related to WWII, but from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “Gallipoli” there are any number of striking, powerful films that consider the frightful impact of the Great War. Today we provide an in-depth look at three such works.
“Grand Illusion” (1937)
Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim, Dita Parlo
Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix
Jean Renoir’s masterpiece of class tension and the futility of armed warfare stretches far beyond its supposed inspiration, a book (published in 1909) by British economist Norman Angell that argued war worked against the common economic interest of all European nations, and was therefore pointless. Renoir takes a far less mathematical approach: his “grand illusion” is not simply that war erects artificial economic barriers, but that it pits men with no quarrel whatsoever against each other in life or death struggle. Or…is the “illusion” the constructed, meticulous class hierarchy of European society, laid waste by the mass destruction and disillusionment of the war? Or is it the foolhardy notion that mankind even can, or will, ever stop fighting itself? Renoir’s humanist classic considers all these angles and more, wrapped in a gripping drama of French POWs and the stuffy, yet sympathetic German aristocrat (von Stroheim, in a performance for the ages) tasked with guarding them. The Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg in Alsace, where many of the exteriors of the POW camp were filmed, is one of the cinema’s greatest and most eerie settings: cast aside from the war and forced to consider their place in the world, these men hang almost literally hang on the razor’s edge.
“Random Harvest” (1942)
Cast: Greer Garson, Ronald Colman, Susan Peters, Philip Dorn
Available to rent or purchase on iTunes, on disc from Netflix
“Random Harvest” is not strictly a war movie, but it is grounded in the First World War and the trauma it inflicted upon the men it devoured. The film opens in the autumn of 1918 at Melbridge County Asylum in the English Midlands, “grimly proud of its new military wing, which was to house the shattered minds of the war that was to end war.” John Smith (Ronald Colman) is one of these men, though his affliction is but a loss of memory and a stutter. He wanders away from the asylum on the day the war ends—the guard leaves the gate open in the euphoria of the moment—and meets Paula (Greer Garson), a warm, compassionate actress who falls in love with him and takes him in. What unfolds is a story of love, patience, amnesia, and reconciliation. The characters and their odyssey are at the center, but the war and its damage never fade from view.
“Joyeux Nöel” (2005)
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Daniel Brühl, Benno Fürmann, Diane Kruger, Gary Lewis, Dany Boon
Available to purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix
Every child knows that on the first Christmas of the Great War, the warring sides laid down their arms, joined in celebration, and played a game of football. History tells us that there was not one Christmas truce, but many spontaneous ones scattered along the Western Front where soldiers indeed sang carols, shared food, and played their favorite game across the mud of No Man’s Land. “Joyeux Nöel” seeks to dramatize the communion of one particular group of German, Scottish, and French soldiers on the holiest of nights in 1914. With soft, snowy scenes that seem sketched by pastels, the trilingual French film is a romantic look at a romantic story, but succeeds in conveying the universal suffering and shared humanity of the soldiers who fought and died.
One of its best moments is a funny debate between a French and a German soldier about a cat who belongs to the farm the trenches run through. The Frenchman call it Nestor, the German Felix, and the cat roams freely between the two sides, who can often hear each other breathing at night. It’s a reminder of just how close the enemies were in the trenches, physically and emotionally, and how the First World War was a fratricide, a bloodbath of millions of men on a continent that turned on itself.