Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was one of the greatest French directors of all time. Some say the greatest! After his experience fighting amid the insanity that was World War I, he was ever after dedicated to doing his level best to make it the last war. His greatest films all had something of an antiwar message, though I think it fairer to characterize his sentiments as pro-humanism which is antiwar by logical extension. Renoirs subject matter is not war, but the human condition. Grand Illusion is as good as movies get. It may not be the best film ever but I dont know where there is a better one.
The Story: Two French airmen, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lt. Maréchal, are shot down during a mission by German fighter ace Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). Von Rauffenstein orders his men to find the downed soldiers and, if they are officers, to invite them to join him for lunch. There he treats them to something of a feast with his officers and apologizes profusely for the faut pas when a wreath appears for placement on the grave of another French aviator shot down weeks earlier. They are, after all, fellow gentlemen and career officers and by the code of gentleman, theres no reason to be uncivil just because theres a war in progress. Actually, as Rauffenstein soon discovers, only Boeldieu is of his own social class. Maréchal is a mere commoner (he had been a mechanic in Paris before the war), which becomes all too obvious when he actually yawns during lunch. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu, on the other hand, are social peers. Rauffenstein even discovers that he is acquainted with one of the Boeldieus cousins.
Soon the two French aviators are carted off for POW internment. There they meet other French soldiers, including Rosenthal (Marcel Dallo), a Jew and son of a wealthy banker. Rosenthal is representative of the French nouveau riche. In fact, his family now owns the chateau that Boeldieus family can no longer afford. Rosenthal gets packages from home, which the gentlemanly Germans permit the prisoners to receive, with plenty of food, so that the prisoners actually end up eating better than their captors.
The prisoners are allowed to organize a talent show. Costumes are ordered that include womens clothing for one of the dance numbers. The poor soldiers have not seen a woman in months or years and even touching the garments has them in a near state of frenzy. One of the softer-faced young officers is asked to try on one of the costumes. He emerges in a dress laughing about how ridiculous he must look. The men, however, are agog with silent admiration, each probably secretly wanting to jump his bones. It is a priceless moment.
The guards and the prisoners occasionally learn about the wars progress, which includes victories and setbacks for both sides. Naturally, the Germans celebrate their advances, much to the prisoners chagrin. A distant French fort, Douaumont, is taken by the Germans. Later, in the midst of the prisoners talent show (quite entertaining in itself!), it is recaptured by the French. The French prisoners break out into a round of the Marseilles.
A group of Russian soldiers receive a crate courtesy of the Czarina and are enraged to find it filled with books on grammar, cooking, and the like instead of vodka and caviar. For the commoner soldiers, whether French, Russian, or British, priorities seldom range beyond food, drink, sex, and camaraderie.
Since, as one of the prisoners remarks, the purpose of a prison camp is escape, the prisoners busy themselves, when they are able, digging a tunnel. Dirt is removed each night after roll call and deposited the next day in the garden. The tunnel is nearly complete when the prisoners are informed that they are to be transferred to a different prison camp: Wintersborn. It is a fortress with high walls with drops of 150 ft. The commandant of the camp is Von Rauffenstein. He had been severely injured during a mission and is no longer fit for combat. He prides himself in running the camp strictly, but with gentlemanly fairness. No torture scandals at his place!
A distraction will be imperative to facilitate an escape attempt by Maréchal and Rosenthal. Captain de Boieldieu insists on providing it, fully understanding that it will likely cost him his life. The French prisoners have fashioned flutes and begin making a racket. The guards enter each cell to confiscate these instruments. No sooner have they left than the prisoners start another racket banging pans, clapping, and the like. This, too, the Germans put an end too. Still, the sound of one last flute is heard from the castle ramparts, where Boieldieu is prancing about skittishly, like Peter Pan. He is ordered to come down, but refuses buying additional time for the escapees, who are shinnying down a rope. Finally, Captain de Boieldieu is shot by Von Rauffenstein. As Boieldieu lies dying in the infirmary, Von Rauffenstein attends him, and apologies profusely for hitting him in the stomach. I aimed at your legs. Boieldieu is equally apologetic and points out that he was a great distance away and was moving about. When Boieldieu succumbs, Von Rauffenstein plucks his prize geranium from its stem in despair.
Near the end of the film, Maréchal and Rosenthal are near the end of their endurance. They are at each others throat with desperation. Throwing caution to the wind, they take refuge in the shed of a farmhouse, where they are discovered by Elsa (Dita Parlo) a war widow. This is where Renoir leaves us with a sense of hope for the future of mankind. Ignoring that these men are different (French enemy soldiers), she invites them in, tends to them, feeds them, mends them physically and emotionally. She shows them photographs of her husband (killed at Verdun) and three brothers who died at Liège, Charleroi, and Tennenberg three of our greatest victories. Now the tables too big, she observes, bitterly. They, in turn, help her, ease her loneliness, and show kindness and affection for her young daughter. They share Christmas together even Rosenthal, the Jew. Despite differences, love emerges between Maréchal and Elsa, for one day at least. In fact, they drink deeply of their differences savoring words from each others language. Who knows what might have transpired for these two after the war. Surely we can hope. For the rest of mankind, what transpired after the war was . . . well, another war.
Themes: The central theme of Grand Illusion as well as Jean Renoir's life as a man is a heartfelt plea for recognition that we are all brothers and sisters. In Grand Illusion, Renoir takes on several of those isms by which people continually debase themselves: classism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism. Although racism and sexism play little role in this film, we can readily imagine that Renoirs stance would be identical there as well.
It is a message that couldnt have come at a more germane (or German?) moment in history in 1937. That Renoirs earnest entreaty was largely ignored is one of the great shames of human existence. Actually, it was more than merely ignored the Nazis did everything in their power to obliterate Renoirs message. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared the film cinema enemy number one. When the Nazis took France in World War II, Goebbels ordered every copy of the film confiscated and destroyed. A few copies survived and Renoir supervised a reconstruction in 1960 that was satisfactory, but full of scratches and marred by poor subtitles. Miraculously, the original negative also survived by a far more circuitous route. It was seized by the Nazis and taken to Berlin, but a German archivist, Frank Hensel, did his duty to the arts rather than to the Nazis. He arranged to ferret the negative away. After the fall of Berlin, the negative was seized by the Russians and held in Moscow until the mid 1960s. Then, it was returned to Cinemathèque Française, but the curators mistook it for just another print and had no idea what a treasure they had in their possession. It was not until thirty years later that its value was discovered. It is that negative that was used to make the practically perfect Criterion transfer. You can see it today in a quality that hadnt existed since it was first shown in theaters.
Another core theme of this film is the passing of the aristocracy, which Renoir must have felt deeply as an artist and the son of the great impressionist painter, Auguste Renoir. Although Renoirs humanistic sympathies allied him with all of mankind, his sensibilities as an artist left him nostalgic for the educated, cultured upper class of Europe which had long been the principal benefactor of the arts. In Grand Illusion Boeldieu and Rauffenstein are more cultured than most of the other soldiers. There is one common soldier who is educated and even reads Pindar (a Greek poet), but is mocked and somewhat ostracized by the rest of the commoner soldiers. Rauffenstein also has no use for this soldiers pretensions to appreciation of literature, dismissing the man with a withering look and a comment, Poor Pindar.
Boeldieu and Rauffenstein share a nostalgia for the old ways the refinements and cultured mannerisms of the elite aristocracy, but the end of the old order is close at hand. Both understand that the present war signals the doom of the upper crust of society. It was the aristocrats who declared World War I and they would pay the price for the blunder. The only difference in their views is that Boeldieu is reconciled and sees the inevitable change as something of a joke at his own expense. He says, Neither you nor I can stop the march of time. In fact, knowing that his species is all but extinct eases Boeldieus decision to make an heroic sacrifice. Rauffenstein views the transition with greater bitterness. He can barely speak the names of the commoners Rosenthal, Maréchal without revulsion. What happy gifts of the French Revolution, he mutters.
What is the grand illusion to which Renoir refers in the films title. More than one answer has been suggested. I opt for the idea that it refers to the illusion of barriers that artificially divide us into different groups of people which wage war with one another, either militarily, politically, or socially. It is each persons illusion that his or her own perception of reality from an individualized vantage point defined in part by race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and nationality is the valid one and that other viewpoints are distorted. As the two escaped Frenchmen approach the possibility of freedom at the Swiss border, one states, You cant see borders. Theyre man-made. Nature could care less. Renoir is saying the same about the boundaries that separate one group of people from another. The idea that we are all one people is the foundation of humanism. Another answer that has been offered is too bleak, in my opinion, to have been the intent of such an earnest humanist and optimist as Renoir: the illusion that World War I would be the war to end all wars. That hope did prove illusory just three years after Renoir produced this film, yet I doubt it was the illusion to which he referred. That would be out of character for this great man.
Production Values: Every frame in Grand Illusion is a work of art as rich in impressionistic detail, in its own way, as one of his fathers painting. Renoir finds beauty in the most unlikely places, just as a single Geranium graced Rauffenstiens quarters. Every detail as well as the mise-en-scene taken as a whole is designed to add to the subconscious elements of the narrative, to complement the story contained in the dialog and action. Watch, for example, the framing of the scenes in which Rauffenstein is showing the French prisoners around their new camp to impress on them the futility of attempting to escape. Note how the prisoners are tightly framed between walls and guards, visually illustrating the impossibility of unrestricted movement. Or, notice how class distinctions are illustrated visually by the positioning of the various prisoners how they group themselves into cliques or indicate superiority or deference according to social class or rank. Only a handful of directors Bergman and Eisenstein for example possess comparable command of composition. Renoirs editing style features long takes with relatively few intercuts, which he achieves by moving the camera in gliding sweeps through the scene. This has the effect of putting the audience in the scene as almost a bystander.
Renoir enclosed a letter to projectionists in the film cans containing La Grande Illusion that read, in part, I composed each frame to fill this space and to leave nothing blank. It was that important to him that the film be presented in its proper aspect ratio. Renoirs heart would soar if he had lived to see the newly minted Criterion release of his marvelous work and its utterly pristine condition. Renoirs other greatest masterpiece was the 1939 film The Rules of the Game.
The cast of Grand Illusion comprise one of the greatest ensembles in film. The rendition of Rauffenstein by Erich von Stroheim has become iconic with his stiff back and neck brace, white gloves and aristocratic sneer. Amazingly, he was not even German nor was he previously familiar with Renoirs style. Von Stroheim was a famous film director in his own right and had worked with D.W. Griffith in Hollywood. Von Stroheim was better known later to American audiences for a performance in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Jean Gabin, who plays Maréchal, is suitably masculine, yet sensitive as well. Gabins other film credits included Pépé le Moko (1937), La Bete Humaine (1938), and French Cancan (1955). Pierre Fresnay, as Boeldieu, strikes the perfect balance between haughty aloofness and nobility of purpose. We are as surprised as Rauffenstein by his unexpected scamper through the castle ramparts that provides the decoy for his friends escape. Fresney also appeared in Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Marcel Dalio, who plays Rosenthal, comes center stage after the escape. His interactions with the little daughter of Elsa are precious. Dalio plays Rosenthals Jewishness credibly while dispensing with Jewish stereotypes which is important to the films message. Dalio had a distinguished career as an actor, including such films as The Rules of the Game (1939), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), Gentlemen Prefer Blonds (1953), The Sun Also Rises (1957), and Pillow Talk (1959). Dita Parlo is lovely in precisely the right way mature, courageous, tender, and aching with loneliness. Dita Parlo previously appeared in LAtalante (1934). I particularly enjoyed Julien Carette as Cartier, the song-and-dance man in the talent show. He also appeared in La Bete Humaine (1938) and Rules of the Game (1939).
Bottom-Line: This is no French version of Hogans Heroes. Put fairly, this is one of the greatest works of art ever created in the realm of cinema. It teeters very close to dramatic perfection. It has been widely referenced in later films, from the singing of the Marseilles in Casablance to the tunnel digging tactic in The Great Escape. Though Grand Illusion is, at times, an almost depressing examination of the limitations of human nature, it ends with a humanistic affirmation. Grand Illusion received an Oscar nomination in 1938 for Best Film the first foreign film to be so honored. It was not until over thirty years later that another foreign language film would be so honored. In the meantime, what we now call the Best Foreign Language Film category was implemented in 1947. If you havent already seen this film, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from France:
The Battle of Algiers
La Belle et la Bête
Bob le Flambeur
Boudu Saved from Drowning
A Bout de Souffle
La Cage aux Folles
Céline and Julie Go Boating
Children of Paradise
Cléo from 5 to 7
Un Coeur en Hiver
Cyrano de Bergerac
The Dinner Game
The Earrings of Madame de . . .
Eyes Without a Face
La Femme Nikita
The Horseman on the Roof
Jean de Florette/Manon
The King of Hearts
Last Year at Marienbad
Life and Nothing But
A Man Escaped
The Mother and the Whore
La Nuit de Varennes
Pépé le Moko
The Rules of the Game
A Sunday in the Country
The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe
Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Wages of Fear
Read all 10 Reviews
Write a Review
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older