It's humbling to write about a movie as intelligent, revered, and successful as Jean Renoir's 1937 war masterpiece La grande illusion, or to even publish my hastily compiled first impressions after one late night viewing amongst the probable thousands of things that have been written and said by scholars, critics, and fans in the past seventy years, whose acclaim have pushed the movie to #24 on the TSPDT? list. The Grand Illusion is a thought-provoking, touching, and funny accomplishment, and it deserves rank amongst the greatest that cinema has ever offered.
"The Grand Illusion" is, of course, war, and the First World War--the Great War--is chosen as the stage whereon the old world of chivalry, esprit de corps, nationalism, and aristocracy, all those notions that helped to propel Europe into the war, extinguishes pitifully to make way for a hopeful, modern society of sacrifice, democracy, trust, and respect. There's no fighting in The Grand Illusion, and very little blood is shed. The causes of war, the faults and consequences, the specifics of who is winning and by how much: no time is wasted on any of these absurdities. The tug-of-war capture, surrender, and recapture of an offscreen French fort by German battalions is the only direct reference to tactical maneuvers, and its frequent change of possession causes one cynical observer to remark, "There mustn't be much left by now."
The war depicted could be any war. Some people on one side die. Some people on the other side die. In the end, some politics happens and the world resumes with different borders and laws and other such inventions and a few million less human lives. Renoir's film is allegorical. Characters represent different aspects of a diverse society, yet they are rich, unique and convincing. What's important here is which characters live and which ones die. As a crippled German officer explains in an odd moment of camaraderie with his French prisoner of war, either the French or the Germans may win, but the old world they represent will certainly die.
Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) wears white gloves, a stiff uniform, and a neck brace, all to cover a body destroyed by war burns. He'd rather be fighting--would rather die fighting--but his diminished physical capacity means he must not police a prisoner of war camp, doing his duty in an eleventh century cathedral and tending to his lonely geraniums while the world around him violently trudges forward. His name is important--he is a von Rauffenstein, an aristocrat--and when his men capture a Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a French nobleman whose count brother--also fighting the war somewhere--he once knew in Paris, he sees a kindred spirit. Boeldieu's captured comrades--a Rosenthal, a Marechal--are honorable men Boeldieu honors and trusts, but von Rauffenstein sees them as mere prisoners. A Jew and an urban workingman, Rosenthal and Marechal are subjected to the same examinations, confiscations, and interrogations as any suspect prisoner. With de Boeldieu, however, an honorable word and a promise suffice.
The French aristocrat prods, half amused, half confused. He is, after all, no less dishonest than his peers. They are all plotting to escape. Why should he be treated with respect and naive trust when the others are justifiably searched. To the German aristocrat, the answer is quite obvious. A Jew? A lower class workman of no distinguished name? Why even bother explaining?
It sounds racist and simplistic, and it certainly hints at the antisemitism that would follow the war, spawning its sequel (The Grand Illusion was made as the Nazis were building steam in Europe), but the characters--both of them wearing monocles (I found myself constantly thinking how impractical such an obsolete instrument must have been), both of them excessively yet naturally prim and polite--are so precise and natural in their assumptions that the scene never seems outrageous. We feel only sympathy for von Rauffenstein, helplessly stuck in an outdated perspective that forces him to trust the one man he should be most suspicious of, the man who has in fact hidden the ropes that will later be used to flee. It's like if your farsighted grandmother in the heat of competition asked you to help her read her poker cards.
Von Rauffenstein, like Germany with its nationalism and antisemitism and other preposterous, excessive notions of the first half of the twentieth century, sets up his own demise. The sadness, rejection, and acceptance that cross his face when he realizes that de Boeldieu has betrayed him are heartbreaking.
De Boeldieu, with the knowledge that the life he is accustomed to is long gone and the hopeful new life of his comrades is just beginning, uses his position of trust to lure the Germans in a Pied Piper distraction while Rosenthal and Marechal escape by rope over the fortress wall. He wants to die. He knows von Rauffenstein wants to die, too. For most people, death in war is a tragedy. For aristocrats--the knights of bygone ages--it's the only way out.
Meanwhile, Rosenthal and Marechal begin their two hundred mile trek to neutral Switzerland through the freezing landscape of northern Germany. They run out of their scarce food, Rosenthal sprains his ankle, the map begins to tatter, and soon they're at each other's necks, irritable, desperate, and fatigued. Rosenthal's a filthy Jew. Marechal's a common dog. Rosenthal's dragging him down like dead weight. Marechal was always a waste of space. They separate; good riddance. Then the anger subsides and they hobble on together. Their virtues and dependence on each other triumph. Contrary to being a "stingy Jew," the nouveau riche Rosenthal, son to a wealthy banking family, always gladly shared his abundant prison parcels so that all the prisoners could eat like royalty. Despite being a common dog, Marechal has shown courage and resiliency in rallying the prisoners against humiliation and defeat. Goodness prevails, regardless of race and class, and despite the evidence of the eighty years since this movie was released, it still can.
Hiding in a barn in the German wilderness, they are captured by a peasant woman named Elsa (Dita Parlo), who never considers rousting them out or alerting the authorities, despite their French ethnicity. To her, having lost her husband and all her brothers to a war she could care less about, they are fundamentally cold, tired, and hungry people, despite their language. She invites them in, feeds them, and explains the loneliness of her life, the sorrow of a dinner table far too large for just her and her young daughter. Pointing to a photograph of military men, she rattles off the battles her brothers died in--all of them conclusive triumphs for Germany but major defeats for herself. Enclosed in a warm, bright, humble abode far from the fighting and the capital cities, with Christmas approaching, they form a loving, bilingual family with plans to reunite when the war ends.
In a final scene, they finally make it to snowy Switzerland. How can you tell, Marechal asks. It all looks the same. To which Rosenthal responds, borders are an invention of man. Nature doesn't give a damn.
They cross the final steps to arbitrary freedom. A German border patrolman spots them, ponders opening fire, but--his mind governed by the fictions that control borders, politics, and war--realizes that they are in another country and must let them escape.
For the minorities, women, and working men, war is hell. Something to be suffered and escaped from. Limbs and lives can be lost, but those who put stock in the divisive inventions of noble blood, political frontiers, superior ethnicities, and heroic bloodshed should have the most to lose: a lifestyle that seeks to separate rather than unite, that seeks to justify chaos and disunity for the sake of tradition rather than promote understanding, trust, and respect for the sake of progress.
I've seen one other Renoir film--The Rules of the Game, considered his masterpiece (and #2 on the list)--but I think I prefer this one with its more hopeful tone, its dose of humor, its rigorous but clear pacing, and its characters, who despite being obvious stand-ins for allegorical statements never seem anything short of real and well-rounded. An excellently acted and finely crafted film, it still maintains the freshness and meaning that it held eight decades ago, the allure that propelled it to being the first foreign film nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. It's inspired movies from The Shawshank Redemption to Woody Allen's Manhattan to Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law, and it will hopefully inspire anyone who sees it to strive toward a dignified approach to all mankind. (The Nazis, by the way, despised this film, and Goebbels labeled Renoir Public Enemy Number One.)
Like I said at the beginning, I'm only scraping the surface of all the rich layers this film has to offer. I've only seen it once. I suggest you see it as many times as possible.
The Grand Illusion
d: Jean Renoir w: Jean Renoir, Charles Spaak
(Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Marcel Dalio)