LA GRANDE ILLUSION [1937]: A Note on Deep-Focus Cinematography cinema at its finest...

It was last last week's Tuesday when i purchased cinematic giants from the retail store up at the shopping center on the northern part of the campus. I brought my friend with me and he said: "Oh! You like classics!", and i replied, enough to hide my dissatisfaction to the contemporary local film culture in Manila, "Yeah, I watch them once in while. A matter of taste, i guess." And he looked at me, as if i was deprived of 'entertainment' and that i am sad and lonesome guy who belongs to stratified viewers of current audience whose only way to happiness is to become a vulture of culture.

At that moment upon spotting Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1939) on the dusty bookshelf, i knew i have received the greatest amount of pleasure, a great benifit for joining the sad old league of grumpy young adults who loves to party with Bela Tarr and Kiarostami off at Contemplative Island somewhere in outer space. I have experienced an insurmountable amount of intellectual happiness.

If there is such a person as an arcane academician who profanely insults the dullness of Michael Bay's Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) and how can it can transform into a military porn, and how it 'fucks the frame', i am not one of them. But if there is a bunch of cinephiles who have reached a certain level of maturity of viewing films with an understanding of the notion of montage (Eisenstein) versus deep-space (Bazin), i would frankly say that i crudely fit with them. How can I say this? It is difficult, however, to say that i hate watching Michael Bay's films. If today's auteurial focus on criticism and theory have resurrected Dreyer, Hitchcock, Ozu and, for all time's sake, Renoir, i would say that Bay, whose version of cinema is deeply frustrating (personally) and deeply distorted (as a cinephile), embodies the anti-thesis of the whole auteur concept. He caters to mass audience and wows them with spectacle through the use of special effects. Unlike Spielberg, what is central to Bay's use of spectacle is the visual destruction of the audience's cinema-eyes. It is the most brutal form of cinema.


I want to revisit two stylistic aspects of La Grande Illusion which have been central to most of its criticisms and studies. My experience with Renoir has been both intellectually and personally rewarding. Renoir's cinema has contributed much to my own humanity, how his films, like La Grande Illusion and Le Crime du Monsiuer Lange (1936), became my recurrent topic for reflection in my journals. How oh how such a young cinema offered complex themes which are still of our concern today! It has also provided me a slice of the film making stylistics of the pre-World War II cinema. If it can be generalized that Renoir's 1930s works are a pack of political set-offs to infuriate the Nazi's rise to power, i definitely would disagree on that. Although much of the contexts revolving on 1930s Renoir are heavily grounded on this one, it is because of the 1930s rise in fascism which influenced this mode of thinking. A critic may find that it is inevitable to discuss fascism when one write about Renoir or his films.

This political maneuvering of 1930s is not central to my revisiting of Renoir's aesthetics in La Grande Illusion. Let me began by saying that cinema is, for me, the most technologically dependent yet the most obvious kind of art that i have ever encounter. One must always think, when one is watching a film, that the source of the visual plethora they are witnessing are from the mechanical movements of the camera, the incisiveness of a cut, and flow of the narrative. This three major elements are manipulated by a singular artistic agent, which we can safely classify as the director or auteur. This method of looking at films is derived from the notion that film is a set of artistic formalisms which can produce specific effects. However, Bordwell argued that this perspective is incomplete. He demands that this formalist notion should be subjected to historical accounting, and that every element is historically contingent.

He calls this way of studying films Neoformalist Poetics. But this certain methodology might entail some tedious research and, if you are expecting a detailed study on La Grande Illusion, this blog post might disappoint you. I am approaching La Grande Illusion with an initial attempt to lay its stylistic bravura: frame mobility and deep-focus cinematography and with this we may understand how La Grande Illusion became one of highest point in cinema.


Deep-Focus Cinematography in La Grande Illusion

Renoir's cinematographic engagement in La Grande Illussion is, itself, a major breakthrough in the history of cinema. Before Renoir, deep focus cinematography is not a salient technique. During the birth of cinema until 1903, there was 'deep focus cinematography' and it played a central role in crafting most of our early films. One could tell from my previous example, Petticoat Lane (1903) (here) that the deep focus shot remained very basic to early films. However, our young filmmakers seemed not aware of this cinematic achievement. They do not even have a concept of cinematography. Their concern was to document reality, with a less focus on story telling.

The Soviet Montage Movement, though contributed much to the recent stylistics of today's films especially in editing, are aloof to cinematography. Eisentein and Vertov, at both extremes of the Movement, are particularly interested in the incisiveness of a cut and less to the establishment of a shot alone. In their highly stylistic manipulation of a shot, they have created a theory that have been influential to this day. Discontinuous and conflicting sequence of images are juxtapose to create an idea. I always find the Soviet Montage a precursor to the cinema succeeding it.

F. W.Murnau, in his Last Laugh (1924), broke the ice for cinematography.
"This meant that operating the camera became a more demanding task, and a dedicated camera operator became necessary. The operator worked under the control of the principal cameraman, who now devoted all his attention to lighting the scene, and so was called the 'lighting cameraman' inside the film industry, to distinguish him from this new 'camera operator'. And the camera operator had an assistant, or 'focus puller', to make the frequent changes to the lens focus required by these extra camera movements." (Salt)
After Murnau, then came the plight of the 1930s poetic realism of France, a slice in film history, when our master director, Renoir, developed most of his remarkable films notably La Règle du jeu (1939), Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), La Bête humaine (1938). Poetic Realism, Bordwell writes in his Film History: An Introduction 2nd ed., "is not a unified movement, like French Impressionism or Soviet Montage; it was, rather, a general tendency." Much of Renoir's major works became part of this tendency of French Cinema. Most actors from La Grande Illusion have been part of this series of films like Jean Gabin. And it has, in some way, influence the track of the stylistics of cinema. It can be characterize as set of narrative modes on characters who live in the 'margins of society'. "With its roots in realist literature, this movement combined working-class milieus and downbeat story lines with moody, proto-noir art direction and lighting to stylishly represent contemporary social conditions." (here)

The nature of the poetic realism tendency precipitated the kind of deep-focus cinematography central to the stylistics of La Grande Illusion. What is exactly deep-focus cinematography? Well, it has many meanings depending on the time period it used to refer. One can quickly recall that of Petticoat Lane (1903) and its acute use of the style. The Petticoat deep-focus is extremely different to Renoir's use of deep-focus. The deep-focus of Petticoat is still primitive and hasn't been cracked from its shell. It lacks a narrative functional role and thus become a latent, less subversive type of deep-focus cinematography.

Renoir's usage of deep focus have greatly improved because it acquires a functional role in the narrative. Let me elucidate this very important aspect.

One the series of frames below, one can observe a typical deep-focus shot, a frame with all planes (foreground, middle ground, and background) in sharp focus. We can determine its functional role by looking at the the middle plane where the two main characters of the narrative, Boeldieu and Marechal are positioned. This shot shows Marechal yawning behind a prisoner-officer on the foreground which we practically do not know. The plane behind them are composed of unidentified soldiers. This is part of a series of establishing shots to show the immediate surrounding of their prison camp.

Exhibit 1


The cinematography of this scene highly involves the elements of framing. Of course, no cinematographic technique can stand alone without the involvement of other aspects such as depth of field and mise-en-scene.

Plane Positioning

When one talks about a deep focus shot, one has to note that this is a matter of the camera LENS and it is, in a way, limited to that technological device. Since the quality of the lens encompasses other elements of a shot such as framing, shot scale, camera movement and much of the mise-en-scene it can cause a major distortion on the image or sometimes it works in subtle, unnoticeable ways. The lens is highly sensitive to all of these elements and it can be noted that all these elements highly depends on the deep of field.

The plane positioning of the subject highly depends with a deep focused camera lens. I have to reiterate this that there are three basic planes to film compositions, and i think, basic also to photography: foreground, the one nearer to the camera; middle ground, the one in behind the foreground (hehe!), and background, the plane farthest to the camera.

On a certain level of generality, the three frames above constitute a high involvement of the director in staging the event. Renoir selects the middle ground to stage the two main characters, Captain de Boeldieu and Marechal. The foreground comprise of a singular dominant element, a prisoner-soldier we do not know. This anonymity transpires an artificial effect that affects both the middle ground and background. The frame composition seems to note a distinction of the middle ground, and we can say that the middle ground cannot establish its emphasis without the presence of the foreground, where the anonymous 'dominant' soldier stands, and on the background where other anonymous soldier are focused.

Renoir wanted to show us the contrast between this planes, and he used a deep focus to elucidate the effect of conflicting images of anonymity and familiarity to the viewers.

Angle and Scale of Framing

Aside from being in deep-focus, this shot is composed in a straight-on angle. It is almost frontal and flat, suggestive that Renoir might use a telephoto lens. The flatness of the frame and its frontal staging creates a unification of the image and have contributed to the contrasting of the elements present in the frame. As suppose to anonymity and familiarity effects, the flat and frontal approach of Renoir creates an overlapping of the planes of varied familiarity. To show the shot in its most candid form, we observe Marechal's yawn in response to an off screen sound effect (in German) from a source we do not see.


The sound effect played a large part in the execution of the shot. The sound exhibited in this shot comes from an off screen source. One can infer by intuition that the sound originates from a German speaker in a highly authoritative voice. For non-German and French language speakers like me, the absence of the English subtitles is highly indicative that this sound is not English or French. The tone of the voice of the speaker is imposing. Note that this is only a part of a series of establishing shot, and the other shots have confirmed that the voice came indeed from a German Officer giving orders.

The voice of the German officer provides the context of the deep-focus style. Renoir integrates the style which one would think appropriately suits this part. The authoritative quality of the sound prompts Renoir to masterfully add a sense of immediacy to the image. When one stresses on immediacy, he or she intuitively constructs a space of sharpness, distinction and emphasis. The deep focus style, where every plane is in sharp focus, highly elicit this effect of immediacy.

To integrate this analysis, Renoir's masterful use of deep-focus cinematography is highly grounded on a complex set of construction principles: one, to establish contrast between planes, and elements to elements; to enable a sense of spatial immediacy heavily relative to the temporal and sound design.

Some other deep-focus shots persist in the film:

The images above are in deep space mise-en-scene.

I have second thoughts about this image above, but it seems the quality of the film have made the man, Rosenthal, in foreground appears out of focus.

Realism and Deep-Focus Cinematography

Film aestheticians from pre-Grande Illusion era are much concern with other cinematographic aspects such as the movement of the camera than the use of lens. Also much of the critcal discussions revolve around the shot-to-shot relationships (preempted by Soviet Montage Movement) and less on the depth and scale of a shot. Renoir has somewhat made a concret way of expressing realism in film. When Renoir establish this approach to filmmaking notably in his film previous to La Grande Illusion, a film of almost noirish in quality, Le Crime du Monsieur Lange (1936), he became consistent until La Regle du Jeu (1939). In the period from 1936 to 1939, Renoir's creative period, his fascination with experimentation grew.

Realism in deep focus cinematography can be attributed from its stabilize manipulation of focusing all planes with sharpness, adding a new dimension. One has to note that realism here does not refer to the dull, shallow meaning of attempting to depict reality, and also to judge Renoir's films as to whether it is realistic or not. One has to distinguish by intuition the difference of realistic or reality before continuing. This notion brings me back to my analogy that La Grande Illusion contributes to filmic realism that filmic reality. Realism is such a loaded word and has been misused and miscarried by writers of cinema and of history itself. Now i wouldn't want to specify all of realism and how it is used, misused throughout history and its degenerative capacity to inflict undeserved categories to certain artworks. American Cinematographers in their article for May 1941 entitled 'Photography of the Month' on noting their observations for Citizen Kane (1942) have made quite a wrap up on this aspect. They wrote

"The result on the screen is in itself little short of revolutionary: the conventional narrow plane of acceptable focus is eliminated, and in its place is a picture closely approximating what the eye sees - virtually unlimited depth of field, ranging often from a big head close up at one side of the frame, perhaps only inches from the lens, to background action twenty, thirty, fifty, or even a hundred feet away, all critically sharp. The result is realism in a new dimension: we forget we are looking at a picture, and feel the living, breathing presence of the characters."

Frame Mobility in La Grande Illusion

Another cinematographic aspect of La Grande Illusion is Renoir's masterful use of the mobility of the camera. There are two observable movement of the camera: the one dependent of the subjects movement and, two, the one independent of the subjects movement. Both techniques prompts lenghty dicussions which i will greatly include on my next post.


Other Shots worth looking for:

Notable Sites on Jean Renoir:

Documents Constables (in French)
Jean Renoir site (in French)

Works Cited:

Bordwell, D and Thompson, K. Film Art: An Introduction 4 ed. New York: Mc-Graw Hill, 1993.

Bordwell, D and Thompson, K. Film History: An Introduction 2nd ed. New York: Mc-Graw Hill, 2003

Ogle, P. Technological and Aesthetic Influences Upon the Development of Deep Focus Cinematography in the United States. Screen Advance Access March 1, 1972. Screen 13: 45-72.

Salt, B. BFI Films: A Brief History of Cinematograhy. Accessed: July 23, 2009. <'>, April 2009.