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GRAND ILLUSION, THE (Grande illusion, La) (director/writer: Jean Renoir; screenwriter: Charles Spaak; cinematographer: Christian Matras; editors: Marthe Huguet/Marguerite Renoir; music: Joseph Kosma; cast: Jean Gabin (Lt. Maréchal), Pierre Fresnay (Capt. de Boeldieu), Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), Erich von Stroheim (Capt. von Rauffenstein), Julien Carette (The showoff), Dita Parlo (Elsa), Werner Florian (Arthur, German guard); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Albert Pinkovitch/Frank Rollmer; Criterion Films; 1937-France in French, with some German and English-with English subtitles)
“Perhaps the greatest anti-war film ever made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jean Renoir’s (“The Rules of the Game”) subdued masterpiece is perhaps the greatest anti-war film ever made (some might prefer All Quiet on the Western Front). Uncannily, “Illusion” never showed one battle scene as it reflects on the first Great War in Europe. The first foreign film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar is framed around a simple WW1 POW escape narrative, but it suggests a more careful look at how it’s also a pointed study of how upper class backgrounds, even in warring armies, offers a stronger bond of sympathy than even nationality. This is brought out through the deep regard the German commandant, Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), had for his captive, the senior French officer, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), also an aristocrat and career professional military man.

The film offers a call for universal brotherhood and a plea for sanity in a world that doesn’t know how to settle things without going to war. There never has been a time of a lasting peace. The Grand Illusion title, one that can mean many things, most likely is derived from the illusionary nature of the war’s slogan that this was “The War to End All Wars.” It’s based on a true story of men Renoir knew when he was in the French Resistance, who told him of their escapes.

Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels considered this film cinematic enemy number one, and tried to destroy all copies. Fortunately he didn’t succeed. The negative was taken during the German occupation of France in WWII and retaken when the Red Army seized Berlin. The Reds stored it in a hidden archive; several prints over the years were released. But it wasn’t until recently that it was put together as it was originally intended by Michel Rocher and Brigitte Dutray, who upgraded it through use of modern technology. Criterion put out a fine version on DVD. The version I saw was the updated one, which was recently on TCM.

In 1916 French pilot Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is ordered by his superior, Captain de Boeldieu, to fly with him on a reconnaissance mission to get aerial photos. They are shot down and captured by Captain von Rauffenstein and invited by him to a hospitable dinner. They are later transferred to a POW camp for officers in Germany. There they meet Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), whose nouveau riche banking family sends him regularly food packages which he graciously shares with the others. The French prisoners are digging a hole for the last few months to escape. For relaxation they are allowed to put on a talent show and wear dresses. When Maréchal announces that the French captured the city of Douaumont, the prisoners take a break from their performances and in a grand patriotic gesture stand at attention and sing with pride “The Marseillaise.” Afterwards Maréchal tries to escape and is brought back to solitary; he’s released in time to be told that all the French officers are being transferred to another camp. When he tries to tell the British replacements about the tunnel, they don’t understand French.

The narrative picks up with Maréchal and Boeldieu, after many escape attempts in different POW camps, transferred to a camp where Rauffenstein is the commandant. He has been severely wounded in battle and can no longer be in the front, but to serve his country he reluctantly takes this new assignment he dismisses in confidence to Boeldieu as being only a policeman’s job. Rauffenstein is so fond of Boeldieu that he rooms him away from the other prisoners in his medieval castle and provides him companionship by also moving in Maréchal and Rosenthal. The later, Rauffenstein says, so they can eat properly. Rauffenstein treats de Boeldieu’s at his word, because he is an aristocrat, but doesn’t have the same respect for the working class auto mechanic Maréchal or the Jew Rosenthal.

The trio hide a rope and scheme to escape, but Boeldieu tells Maréchal and Rosenthal he will stay behind and cover for them because the plan would not be possible for all three to escape together. During the escape the noble Boeldieu is shot by Rauffenstein, as he offers himself up as a sacrifice so the two could escape. Before he dies Boeldieu forgives Rauffenstein, saying he did his duty and he would have done the same thing if things were reversed. The war is seen as a changing view of the social order where, according to the German aristocrat, the working class man and the dirty Jew return to freedom while the aristocrat will not because he’s a member of a dying breed.

During their escape through the German wintry countryside, the two desperate and hungry men stumble upon an isolated farmhouse of a German war widow, whose hubby was killed in Verdun, Elsa (Dita Parlo) and her young daughter Lotte. Even though they don’t speak the same language Elsa and Maréchal fall in love, and make plans to meet after the war if he survives. The men in the last scene make it to safety in neutral Switzerland by crossing the invisible border in a mountain covered with snow.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”