Grand Illusion (“La grande illusion”) (1937)
Directed by Jean Renoir
Written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak
Réalisation d’art cinématographique (RAC)
#106 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
IMDb users say 8.1/10; I say 10/10
Capt. von Rauffenstein: Boeldieu, I don’t know who will win this war, but whatever the outcome, it will mean the end of the Rauffensteins and the Boeldieus.
I consider Jean Renoir’s film about man’s humanity to man during World War I to be a masterpiece – full stop. How lovely life would be if we could look at people in all their complexity the way Renoir does.
Aristocratic career officer Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and working class hero Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin) are shot down over Germany during an air reconnaissance run and taken to an officer’s prison camp. There they bond with the officers quartered with them and work on a tunnel to escape. The men enjoy many comforts thanks to food parcels shared with everyone by Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and put on an amateur theatrical. Just before they can put their escape plan into effect, the men are all transferred to another camp.
Months later, after the two have repeatedly been caught trying to escape from several different camps, they are taken to be held in a heavily fortified and guarded castle. There they meet again with the pilot who originally shot them down, the aristocrat Capt. von Rauffenstein, who has been injured during the war and is now commandant of the prison, a role he evidently loathes. Von Rauffenstein forms a special bond with de Boeldieu, with whom he shares a common class and profession. The rest of the film tells the story of a final escape planned by de Boldieu, Marechal and Rosenthal from the supposedly escape-proof castle. With Julien Carette as an ex-music hall performer prisoner and Dita Parlo as a kind German farm woman.
The story makes this sound something like The Great Escape. This is only superficially true. The real subject of the film is the brotherhood of man. Renoir takes a deep look at the relationships between his characters and finds them, both French and German, to be basically good. When enemies in war relate to each other on an individual level, they find they are the same and become friends. The grand illusion is that borders divide us. But Renoir knows that the illusion creates war. He specifically points out in a couple of different places that characters are deluded when they believe the war will end quickly or that this war can prevent future wars.
I may be making this movie sound preachy. Renoir avoids that entirely and treats his material with a lot of humor. His interest is in the individual. One of the most moving scenes in the film comes during the amateur theatrical at the first camp. A group of English soldiers is performing in drag to an audience of French prisoners and their German guards. Marechal bursts on to the stage to announce that the French have retaken one of their forts. The audience spontaneously begins singing “La Marseillaise”, led by one of the British officers wearing a dress, his wig now removed.
There is quite a similar scene in Casablanca, when the French at Rick’s break out in “La Marseillaise. In the Hollywood film, the scene is patriotic and theatrical. Renoir’s scene is more moving to me, because he makes it so real and unexpected.
This film began my great love affair with Jean Gabin. His natural understated performance is a wonder in a uniformly outstanding cast. Gabin’s performance is often contrasted with Pierre Fresnay as illustrating the difference between a screen actor and a more mannered stage actor. I think Fresnay does not get enough credit. He perfectly captures the public manners of the aristocrat he is playing. Eric von Stroheim’s German accent is execrable but his performance is very touching. This time through I paid particular attention to Joseph Kosma’s fantastic score which only adds to the riches of the production.
Grand Illusion was the first foreign language film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
75th Anniversary Restoration Trailer