Grand Illusion

French drama is a fascinating study of unlikely friendships during WWI.  Legendary director Jean Renoir celebrates brotherhood among prisoners and guards within a German war camp.  The action follows three French officers captured as P.O.W.’s.  The well drawn characterizations are what ultimately draw the viewer into this anti-war commentary.  Lt. Maréchal is a husky working class type, Lt. Rosenthal, a wealthy Jewish banker and Capt. de Boeldieu, a member of the aristocracy.  The three are planning escape by digging a tunnel.  Capt. von Rauffenstein is the German commander of their fortress prison.  Despite being on opposite sides of the war, he bonds with Boeldieu based their similar social class and intellectual ideals. Rarely have enemies displayed such amiable camaraderie in a P.O.W. situation.  In another scene, Rosenthal shares his food parcels with his fellow prisoners, so that they actually dine much better than the guards do.  Indeed it begs the question, why would these prisoners even want to break out?  Certainly the generous treatment they experienced at the hands of their genteel captors exceeds the miserable life of the infantry in the trenches.

To truly grasp this astonishing point of view, it’s important to examine the movie’s release date amidst the historic background.  WWI ended in 1918.  Grand Illusion was released in 1937.  Two years before Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, but well after Hitler had assumed power.  This makes the script’s friendly depiction of all the officers regardless of nationality, religion, or social class, rather surprising in this context.  Ironically the Nazis would ban the film, ostensibly because of its anti-war message.  All copies were destroyed in 1940, except for one negative they missed.

The film is consistently ranked as one of the brightest stars in the cinematic firmament.  It’s a notoriety that unfortunately detracts from a modern moviegoer’s first viewing of the picture.  Is it the greatest masterpiece ever committed to celluloid?  Hardly, but the terrific characterizations subtly reinforce the futility of combat.  Why are these honorable people fighting?   Director and co-writer Jean Renoir’s experiences as a soldier shape much of his view of it as a “war of gentlemen”.  Perhaps a poignant lament of an attitude that the world on the brink of another global conflict, would never see again. This is a war film without a single battle and only one death.  The portrait is such an anomaly in this genre.  An overly idealistic view to be sure, but too eloquent to forget.

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4 Responses to “Grand Illusion”

  1. More than just because of its humanistic approach, this masterpiece yields a tremendous historical significance. Under modern standards it may seem flawed and uneven from the narrative perspective; nevertheless, this is truly one of the grand contributions to celluloid history.

    That’s a fair review of yours; thank God you could see the elements that made it stand out for generations and tried to see it from its historical circumstances.

  2. I’m pleased to see you overcame your commitment to keeping everything short and sweet when a picture came along that had enough substance to merit a longer discussion.

    I had much the same reaction as you, couldn’t have described my thoughts better, and have nothing really to add — except I will elaborate a little on a point you made. Under the circumstances I certainly would have expected Renoir to turn out what-has-come-to-be-called an “anti-war” picture. But the story doesn’t strike me that way at all. In fact the thing that makes this film better than all those “Oh, the madness!” treatments, is that it specifically downplays the standard view of WWI to emphasize the degree to which that event marked the passing of the old order. Even that much of an imposed point-of-view might have been tiresome if the cast hadn’t succeeded as well as it did in keeping the representatives of the various classes from becoming caricatures. Granted, the director allows some of their actions to be a bit exaggerated to get his point across, the protagonists manage to remain as real and likeable as lots of folks you actually meet; and we’re spared the mindless militarists that turn up in so many other treatments of the First World War, including well-regarded films like “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Paths of Glory.”

    All that to the good, I agree with you that the net impact of the picture is probably better described as amiable than gripping.

    • Yes the breaking apart of the social classes is a very unique and original approach to war. In the sense that the characters are so amicable, it still begs the question, “why are these nice people fighting”. The folly of war is subtly (and brilliantly) presented. Take Spielberg’s treatment of war, WWII in his case, with Saving Private Ryan. Examine the first 27 minutes of that film. It’s easier, and much more expected, to condemn war by presenting endless amounts of carnage. The brutality of that opening D-Day invasion is admittedly intense, albeit predictable. Renoir has crafted an important film about war without a single battle (and only one death). This is by far a more difficult achievement.

  3. I agree. Each major war seems to leave a set of pretty rigid conventions for the way it gets portrayed in the fiction of its participants. To the credit of its writers, Grand Illusion took an approach different from the standard European portrayal of WWI. While Saving Private Ryan ground its way through to the tried and true U.S. view of WWII, even though the movie makers gave us plenty of evidence in the opening 27 minutes that they knew better and should have DONE better, morally AND dramatically.

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