David Lean and Jean Renoir are directors of equal caliber, but give drastically different scales to their film’s visions. Their cinematography also contrasts, between Lean’s distanced, observing camera and Renoir’s mobile, intimate camera shots. Both directors make use of symbolism, a crucial tool for giving meaning to the action on a deeper level.
In contrast to Lean’s epic battle scenes, requiring hundreds of extras, horses, special effects for explosions, trains, and small towns, Renoir uses simpler settings, letting dialogue imply the fantastic dogfights. When Rauffenstein gives a tour of the castle that will serve as De Beoldier’s prison, the camera shots are tight, unlike Lean’s endless expanse of background details. We know the castle’s imposing nature from De Boeldier’s reaction and Rosenthal’s naming the architectural periods it represents.
David Lean’s camera moves little during dialogue, allowing the characters to move within its framing. Renoir’s camera glides among the characters with intimacy. The camera becomes one of the characters during a dinner scene, drawing so close that characters even lean in front of it, blocking our view.
Another striking example of Renoir’s camera choreography comes when Marechal announces a French victory the camera undertakes an elaborate survey of the prisoners singing the French anthem. It weaves from the chorus leader across the stage of singing actors, settles briefly on the German officers getting up to leave, circles back to the chorus leader, and then across the crowded audience, all with a fluid subtlety and technical mastery that makes it look easy, when in fact is quite an accomplishment.
Lean and Renoir both recognize the importance of symbolism. De Boeldier’s death scene closes with von Rauffenstein clipping the flower from his windowsill. This lone thing of beauty among the castle’s “ivy and nettles”, as Rauffenstein describes it, represents De Boeldier as a man of honor and class among the rough commoners, now no more.