La Grande Illusion
France (1937) Dir. Jean Renoir
Anti-war films usually impart their message by exploring the horrors of war, the fickle nature of man’s blind nationalism, and the effects it has on the loved ones left behind. Trust the French to take a different stance in their case against the futility of war.
During World War I, two French soldiers, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lt Maréchal (Jean Gabin), are shot down during a reconnaissance mission by German pilot Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). Surviving the crash, von Rauffenstein invites his French captives to lunch, learning he and Boeldieu, as aristocrats, moved in the same social circles before the war.
The Frenchmen are then taken to Hallbach prison camp where they meet wealthy French Jew Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) who shares his care packages with the other prisoners. Teaming with members of a performing troupe, they embark on a plan to escape from the prison and are almost successful until they are transferred to Wintersborn prison, run by von Rauffenstein. Can they escape from under his watchful eye?
Jean Renoir is one of France’s most highly regarding filmmakers and his canon is equally revered, with La Grande Illusion a regular fixture on many critics’ Greatest Films Ever lists. With over 80 years of hype, plaudits, and veneration to its name, it has a lot to live up to for those of us discovering it for the first time today and as always, the chances of it engendering the same gushing response is never guaranteed.
Picking up on Renoir’s satirical approach to his subject is not immediate even if one has read the numerous appraisals about it. Whilst allegorical and ironic, it is not humorously so which is the first thing to note, but having said that, the idea of rival military men being polite, hospitable, and accommodating to each other is absurd enough to feel surreal and quirky.
Renoir’s mission is to postulate on the idea that basic human consideration shouldn’t be compromised for the sake of division, even war, suggesting it can transcend race, colour, political and social ideas, gender, and even class. This comes through loud and clear, never failing to marvel as the sight of two opposing soldiers greeting each other with warm handshakes and engaging in light bonhomie.
Of course, it is a little more than just being courteous – in the case of von Rauffenstein, he lavishes his warmth on Boeldieu because they are from the same social background and treats him with the same respect as he would to an equal in his own army. Boeldieu is still his prisoner though but von Rauffenstein is just “doing his job” as per the rules of war, showing neither devotion or disdain for the cause, a pertinent attitude to cleverly undermine the purpose of armed conflict.
Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein’s bromance is indicative of the unique system the prison operates under where rank dictates the level of courtesy shown to you, so top brass get better treatment, although it isn’t so drastic that the lower ranks are fed sawdust and sleep on the floor. At least Rosenthal’s shared goodies help augment their meals and provide tools for entertainment, so spirits are relatively high as the camaraderie between them attests.
Maréchal being working class is treated no differently by Boeldieu but is deemed less worthy by von Rauffenstein, who cares even less for Rosenthal. For a film which hopes to encourage the elimination of racial boundaries, it is ironic that certain stereotypes and prejudices remain intact. The French are depicted as refined and cultured or boisterously energetic, the Germans as efficient, stolid, and no fans of Jews – so much for humanity trumping all.
It’s not all cosy chats, warm meals, and fun but unlike other war films, this is distinctly non-violent, with only a handful of gunshots and just one leading to a fatality. And with the central plot point of the escape attempts, there is very little of that happening too as Renoir continues to push his pacifist manifesto instead.
However, things start to lag in the third act and whilst it ends on a defining note by way of summarising everything Renoir wanted to say, it is also anticlimactic coming after such a lull in energy. It is probably the only time the story observes the rules of drama rather than follow its own course which may explain the contrast in quality, although the central humanitarian premise is still in effect.
Drawing on his own memories as a pilot in of World War I – Jean Gabin wore Renoir’s actual uniform in the film – Renoir avoids making this autobiographical, since some of the content came from a fellow pilot’s experiences, as well as uncredited similarities from the novel Kavalier Scharnhorst by Jean des Vallières. This gives it a wider scope for the audience to accept the world presented to us without needing to question its credence yet recognise its genuine roots.
The acting is robust across the board, with the biggest surprise being noted hard case Erich von Stroheim playing to type but with a sensitive side to him, meaning he was either the greatest actor of all time or a secret softy. He works well with Pierre Fresnay who creates great chemistry with Jean Gabin. Photography is often inspired for a film with limited sets given a superb makeover for this HD transfer.
So, it is war but not as we know it but a war all the same so we are left wondering why there is need for one for everyone is expected to be so convivial toward each other? Maybe Renoir hasn’t thought this through but the satire he is aiming for in La Grande Illusion works well enough, making for an idea that might work today in the hands of someone like Armando Iannucci.
I can’t say I’m on board with the “Greatest of All Time” sentiment but it is a fascinating watch nonetheless, if an acquired taste.