Grand Illusion

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La Grande Illusion is a 1937 film by renowned director Jean Renoir (1894-1979)—son of artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir—and is regarded by critics and film historians as one of the masterpieces of French cinema. The screenplay was written by Renoir and Charles Spaak.

In English-speaking countries, the film was released as Grand Illusion.


Brief history of the film

Grand Illusion was released in 1937 to much critical acclaim. Even as late as 1970, almost every credible list of the top ten best films in cinematic history included the film.

In 1938, Grand Illusion was the first foreign language film nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the Academy Award for Best Picture (often better known as Oscar). The film won as Best Foreign Film award at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards and the National Board of Review in 1938.

After it won a prize at the Venice Film Festival (for "Best Artistic Ensemble") in 1937, the Nazis declared the film "Cinematic Public Enemy Number One" and Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister, ordered the prints to be confiscated and destroyed.

As the German Army marched into France in 1940 during the World War II, the Nazis seized the prints and negative of the film, chiefly because of its anti-war message, and what were perceived as ideological criticisms pointed towards Germany on the eve of the Second World War. For many years, the negative was thought to have been destroyed in an Allied air raid in 1942, and prints of the film were only rediscovered in 1958. Subsequent to its rediscovery, it was preserved and restored during the early 1960s and re-released.

The original negative was captured by Russians as they occupied Berlin in 1945 and shipped to an archive in Moscow. Oddly enough, it returned to France in the 1960s, and sat unidentified in storage in Toulouse for over 30 years as no one thought the original negative survived. When discovered, in the 1990s, the original negative was restored and released as the inaugural DVD of the Criterion Collection, and is regarded as the most precise edition of the film since its 1937 premiere.

The story

Missing image
Jean Gabin as Lieutenant Maréchal

During the First World War, two French aviators Captain de Boeldieu (played by Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), embark on a flight to examine the site of a blurred spot on photos from an earlier air reconnaissance mission. They are shot down by an aviator and German aristocrat, Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). Von Rauffenstein, upon returning to base, states that he has shot down a French plane and instructs one of his subordinates to find out if the aviators are officers, and if so, invite them to lunch before dispatching them to a prisoner of war camp. During this scene we learn that von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu know each other through acquaintances—a depiction of the familiarity, if not solidarity, within the upper class (i.e. the aristocracy) across the myriad of national boundaries in Europe leading up to the first World War.

De Boeldieu and Maréchal are then placed in a prisoner of war camp, where they meet and befriend several of their fellow countrymen. Soon after their arrival, they participate in an attempt by their comrades to dig a tunnel underneath the camp as a means to escape. However, just before the tunnel is completed, they are forced to switch camps, and are unable to pass word of the tunnel to the incoming prisoners.

During the course of the war, Boeldieu and Maréchal are placed in camp after camp, finally arriving in Wintersborn, a mountain fortress prison commanded by Von Rauffenstein who has since their last meeting been disabled in battle and reassigned. Wintersborn, it is alleged, is inescapable, but we soon learn that Boeldieu and Maréchal have a history of valiant escape attempts.

At Wintersborn, Boeldieu and Maréchal meet one of their fellow prisoners from an earlier camp, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a wealthy Jew. The three together conspire their escape, coming across an idea by paying close attention to how the German guards respond to emergencies. Boeldieu concedes that their plan can only serve two, and suggests that Maréchal and Rosenthal escape, while he serves to draw the German guards' attention as they get away. After some commotion, the guards order an assembly of the prisoners in the fortress courtyard, and proceed to call the roll. When de Boeldieu's name is called he is not present in the assembly, and as they realize his absence, he makes his presence known high up in the fortress, drawing the German guards in pursuit. Maréchal and Rosenthal take the opportunity during the pursuit of de Boeldieu to lower themselves from a window by a home-made rope and flee.

In the poignant sequence that follows, von Rauffenstein and his guards corner de Boeldieu, and von Rauffenstein pleads for him to give up. De Boeldieu refuses, and von Rauffenstein reluctantly shoots him. Nursed in his final moments by von Rauffenstein, de Boeldieu dies of his wounds expressing—in his last thoughts—a lament that their usefulness to society (as aristocrats) ends with this war, and that he has pity for von Rauffenstein who is left behind, alive, to find a purpose in this new, emerging social order.

The film continues with the plight of the fugitives Maréchal and Rosenthal as they journey across the German countryside seeking a route back to France. Rosenthal gets injured, slowing up the duo, and the two men take refuge in the barn of a German woman, Elsa (Dita Parlo), who has been widowed by the war. She generously takes in the two men. Maréchal begins to fall in love with her, but he and Rosenthal must eventually leave for Switzerland (from there to France and return to the war), although Maréchal promises to come back if he survives. They depart. As the film closes, a squadron of German soldiers on patrol sight the two fugitives crossing a snow-covered valley. The soldiers fire a few volleys and miss, but are soon ordered to let Maréchal and Rosenthal go without incident, as they have apparently crossed the invisible Swiss border in the snow-covered valley below.

Political and historical analysis

In Grand Illusion, director Jean Renoir paints a sharply critical view of the fate of Europe as it faces the rising spectre of fascism (especially in Nazi Germany) and the impending approach of the Second World War (1939-1945) and observes it through the eye of the First World War (1914-1918). However Renoir's critique of the politics and ideology does not descend into petty jingoism. Instead, he approaches the issue from the point of view of a universal humanity that transcends national borders and radical nationalism.

Missing image
Erich von Stroheim as Captain von Rauffenstein

Renoir portrays these two aristocrats, de Boeldieu (Fresnay) and von Rauffenstein (von Stroheim), as men of cosmopolitan sensibility, educated in many cultures and conversant in several language. Through their level of education—combined with their devotion to social conventions and rituals—they are distinguished from the characters representing segments of the lower classes. For instance, de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein share similar social experiences, dining at Maxim's in Paris, courting dalliances with the same woman, and know of each other through acquaintances. They converse with each other in heavily formal French and German, however in moments of intimately personal conversation, they escape into English as if to hide these comments from their lower class counterparts. However, their kinship is never sentimental, and only derives from their similar aristocratic origins.

Conversely, Maréchal (Gabin), who—it is revealed was a mechanic in Paris—is not as cultured, and later in the film is unable to communicate adequately with Elsa (Parlo) in German, and likewise she cannot speak French. In fact, Maréchal does not have much in common with those in his class, each of whom have different interests and are not worldly in their views or education. Their kinship, in both in their class origins and culture, is through common sentiment and experience.

Both von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu view their military service as a duty, and they see a purpose to the war. Renoir portrays the aristocrats von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu as laudable, but tragic figures who are used to a world that is disappearing and are trapped in a code of life that is rapidly becoming meaningless. Both realize that their time is past, however, their ability to grasp this reality diverges: de Boeldieu accepts this fate as a positive improvement, von Rauffenstein does not, dismissively lamenting what he calls "charming legacy of the French Revolution." The new, emerging social order, lead by masses of men who were not born to privilege, invalidates the traditions to which Rauffenstein defiantly clings and de Boeldieu accepts, and likewise Renoir emphasizes and conveys that their class is no longer an essential component to their respective nation's politics.

Renoir makes his message even clearer with the final events in the film, where Rosenthal and Maréchal, the common men, escape, but de Boeldieu, the aristocrat, does not. Von Rauffenstein is forced to shoot him (out of duty) eventually leading to his death—an act that de Boeldieu admits he would would be compelled to do were the circumstances reversed. However, in accepting his inevitable death, de Boeldieu takes comfort in the idea that "For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and me, it's a good way out" and states that he has pity for von Rauffenstein who will be forced to find his purpose in the new social order of the world—where his traditions, experiences, and background are obsolete. These notions of honor, duty, and the purpose of the aristocrats to rule are not shared by lower classes in Europe—the everyday men serving their countries thought of the war as a senseless political charade and became disillusioned. This view is best depicted in the film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque.

Renoir briefly touches the question of anti-Semitism through the character of Rosenthal, a son from a nouveau riche (wealthy, but not aristocratic) banking family who happens to be Jewish (an obvious parallel to the Rothschild family in France). It is thought that Renoir sought to present a character to counter the rising anti-Jewish campaign enacted by Adolf Hitler's government in Nazi Germany. Further, Rosenthal is shown as a symbol of humanity across class lines, that though he may financially wealthy, he shares his food parcels with everyone so that he and his fellow prisoners are well fed—when compared with their German captors. Through Rosenthal, Renoir depicts a character that allows anti-Semitic criticisms to be rebuffed, asserting that Jewish stereotypes are meaningless and that scapegoating as a result of such stereotypes is a ridiculous vagary.

Grand Illusion is unique in that it is a war film that does not show one depiction of battle. Instead, the action of film is distanced from the action of war the use of setting (the isolation of a prisoner of war camp) and allusion. This allows the message of the film to center around the human relationships on an individual level, instead of trying to extract a common experience in the age of the mass society.

However, through these allusions, Renoir portrays war as a futile exercise of humanity. For instance, Elsa (Dita Parlo), the German widow, shows photos to Maréchal (Gabin) and Rosenthal (Dalio) of her husband and her brothers who were killed, respectively, at the battles of Verdun, Liège, Charleroi, and Tannenberg. Ironically, these battles were some of Germany's most decisive victories in World War I. Through this device, Renoir refutes the notion that in this era of the masses, one common man's bravery, honor, or duty cannot make an impact on a great event. This is shown in sharp contrast to the idealistic intention of Maréchal and Rosenthal in their escape—to return to the front, so that by returning to the fight they can help end this war.

Lastly, Renoir seeks to refute the notion that war accomplishes anything, or that it can be used as a political tool (a notion espoused by Carl von Clausewitz) to solve problems and create a livable world.

Missing image
French Poster for Grand Illusion (1937), depicting actors Erich von Stroheim (as Capt. von Rauffenstein) and Pierre Fresnay (as Captain de Boeldieu)

Through this film, Renoir conveys distinctly anti-war sentiments without resorting to a message that is too sentimental. As one of the many from the lower and working classes who had fought in World War I, Renoir sought a resolution to the world crisis before the European powers once again resorted to war. With World War I regarded as being a brutal, immense waste of human life for dubious—almost ridiculous—reasons, the lower classes that were now politically empowered after the fall of the old regimes and old social orders would seek any solution to avoid a repeat of the carnage and devastation seen in the first World War. It is in this regard that the role of Maréchal represents a chief component of the political platform put forth by the Front Populaire (an emerging bloc of left-wing political parties at the time this film was released) in France.

Through this film, Renoir focuses on the messages that there is a universality of mankind irrespective of ones national, ethnic, religious, economic, or social backgrounds, and that these common experiences should prevail above politics, and its extension: war.

The best sentiment describing the message of the film, is from Jean Renoir himself, in an interview dating from the re-release of the film in the early 1960s:

[Grand Illusion is] "...a story about human relationships. I am sure that such a question is so important today that if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say ‘goodbye’ to our beautiful world."



Jean Gabin as Lieutenant Maréchal, a French officer
Erich von Stroheim as Captain von Rauffenstein, a German officer
Dita Parlo as Elsa, a widowed German farm woman
Pierre Fresnay as Captain de Boeldieu, a French officer
Marcel Dalio as Lieutenant Rosenthal, a French officer
Julien Carette as Cartier, the showoff
Georges Péclet as An officer
Werner Florian as Sgt. Arthur
Jean Dasté as a teacher
Sylvain Itkine as Lieutenant Demolder
Gaston Modot as an engineer

Several members of the cast were not listed in the film's credits (as was common in early films) including:

Jacques Becker as an English officer
Albert Brouett as a prisoner
Claude Sainval
Carl Koch
Michel Salina

Production credits

Producer: Raymond Blondy
Director: Jean Renoir
Written by: Jean Renoir & Charles Spaak
Editor: Marguerite Renoir
Musical Composer: Joseph Kosma
Music Director: Emile Vuillermoz
Art Director: Eugene Lourie
Cinematographer: Christian Matras


  • As the first movie depicting an escape from a prisoner of war camp, scenes in Grand Illusion have influenced other films in the genre, especially influencing the digging of an escape tunnel in The Great Escape (1963).
  • Likewise, the scene of the French prisoners singing La Marseillaise—the French National Anthem—to enrage their German prison guards, inspired a similar show of patriotic resistance in Casablanca (1942).
  • The title of the film (in French La Grande illusion) comes from an essay called "The Great Illusion" by British economist Normal Angell, who argued that war is futile because of the common economic interests of different nations. The title of Renoir's film is really more accurately translated to "The Great Illusion".

See also

External links


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