Jean Renoir, son of the great French Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, gained his own renown as one of the most significant filmmakers of the first half of the twentieth century. His classic anti-war film La Grande Illusion (1937), known to American audiences as Grand Illusion, is considered by many to be among the finest films ever made.
Like All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory, the action of Grand Illusion occurs during World War I and focuses on the stalemate between France and Germany. Unlike those films, however, Grand Illusion eschews any scenes of trench warfare, and instead examines the futility of war through the eyes of a group of French POWs.
German pilot von Rauffenstein (played splendidly by the great silent-era director Erich von Stroheim) has shot down a French warplane. He instructs a subordinate to retrieve the two men on the plane, telling him, "If they are officers, invite them for lunch."
Maréchal (Jean Gabin), the pilot, and Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay), the aristocrat-turned-officer, are greeted by their German captors with a seemingly odd sense of respect and camaraderie. They sit down to a splendid feast. When Maréchal indicates that he can't cut his meat because of his injured arm, a German officer offers to do it for him. Maréchal compliments him on his French. This is the first indication that while politicians wage war, those forced to fight it don't consider their "enemies" to be enemies at all.
The early scenes in the film depict the day-to-day life of the POWs. Despite their plight, the captives make the best of it, often joking, laughing and singing amongst themselves. We meet some of the other prisoners, including Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a wealthy Jewish banker. He is a hero to his fellow prisoners because his family sends him fine delicacies (which he graciously shares with all), so exquisite that the prisoners eat better than their captors.
Later, the prisoners pour through a shipment of costumes that they will use to stage a cabaret show. They ask their most fair-faced comrade to don a dress. Upon seeing him in it, they pause reverentially, realizing how long it's been since they have seen the real thing, surely one of the more lamentable deprivations of war.
During the musical, an announcement is made that the French have recaptured Doauamont. The prisoners immediately halt the production, doff the wigs, and launch into a rousing rendition of Marseillaise, the French national anthem. This scene was the inspiration for a similar scene in Casablanca.
Despite the humane treatment they receive from their German captors, several of the French prisoners hatch an escape plan: they will dig a tunnel that leads outside the camp. They each take turns doing the digging, and one of them passes out from a lack of oxygen. When the night finally arrives for them to make their daring escape, they learn that they will be transferred to a new POW camp. Just before they leave, Maréchal attempts to tell an English soldier, who is being moved into their former quarters, about the tunnel. Unfortunately, he doesn't speak French, and all of their work has been for naught.
Renoir employs montage to indicate the passage of time as the prisoners move from prison camp to prison camp. Rauffenstein, who has been badly injured in combat, heads the camp where the rest of the action takes place. He walks around stiffly, encumbered by back and neck braces.
Boieldieu, Maréchal and Rosenthal remain from the original group of prisoners. When the Germans search their room, Rauffenstein orders them not to rummage around Boieldieu's belongings:
Rauffenstein: Give me your word you've done nothing here against regulations.
Boieldieu: I give you my word. But why my word and not theirs?
Rauffenstein: The word of a Rosenthal? And of a Maréchal?
Boieldieu: It's as good as ours.
Boieldieu is bothered by Rauffenstein's condescendence of his comrades, and presses him on it when he is invited to Rauffenstein's private quarters for a drink.
Boieldieu: Why did you make me an exception?
Rauffenstein: Because your name is de Boieldieu, career officer in the French Army, and mine is Rauffenstein, career officer in the Imperial German Army.
Boieldieu: My comrades are also officers.
Rauffenstein: A Maréchal and a Rosenthal officers?
Later, Russian POWs receive a crate, and believe it is a shipment of caviar and vodka from the Empress. As a way of repaying Rosenthal for his generosity, they invite the French to join them in the decadent feast. Much to their chagrin, they open the crate to find it filled with books rather than epicurean treats. Infuriated, the Russians set fire to the crate and all the German guards rush in. Boieldieu, Maréchal and Rosenthal realize that if they had been prepared, they could have escaped during the confusion. They plot to cause another disturbance, but Boieldieu insists that he will be the distraction, allowing Maréchal and Rosenthal to break out.
The men concoct a plan that they know will result in a general roll call. When Boieldieu does not answer, all the guards search for him, allowing Maréchal and Rosenthal enough time to flee. Rauffenstein begs his French friend to surrender, but Boieldieu refuses, and Rauffenstein shoots him with his pistol.
The German commandant and his prisoner share a final conversation as Boieldieu lies in his deathbed:
Rauffenstein: Please forgive me.
Boieldieu: I'd have done the same thing. French or German, duty is duty.
Rauffenstein: Is it very bad?
Boieldieu: I wouldn't have believed a bullet in the stomach could hurt so.
Rauffenstein: I aimed at your leg.
Boieldieu: At 150 yards, with poor visibility, and I was running.
Rauffenstein: Please don't excuse it. I was clumsy.
Boieldieu: Of us two, it's not I who's to be pitied. I'll be done for – soon. But you, you're not finished yet.
Rauffenstein: Not finished dragging out a useless existence.
Boieldieu: For an ordinary man, it's terrible to die in war, but for you and me, it's a good solution.
After Boieldieu passes, Rauffenstein respectfully closes his eyelids.
Many statist film historians and critics have argued that the message of Grand Illusion, especially as depicted in the scenes between Boieldieu and Rauffenstein, is that the upper classes were somehow above the war, and that the war precipitated the collapse of the old order of European society. Perhaps.
But I would argue that the "grand illusion" is that the mass killing of innocent conscripted soldiers and civilians can somehow protect people and make them free. The preposterous idea that a small group of elitist politicians should plunder their subjects to prosecute futile and destructive wars is a grand illusion of the highest order. Another illusion is that the citizenry of one nation hates the citizenry of another because the politicians of those nations use war to concentrate and expand their own power.
The absurd nature of the latter illusion is exposed during the final scenes when Maréchal and Rosenthal happen upon what they believe to be an abandoned barn. When a woman enters with her cow, Rosenthal, who speaks German, explains to her that they are not robbers, but war prisoners. The woman replies, "I am not afraid." She welcomes them into her home and feeds them.
The next day, Maréchal goes to the barn to feed the cow. He speaks symbolically to the cow, "You're from Wurtemberg and I'm from Paris, but we're friends anyway."
The utter futility and pointless death of war is driven home poignantly when the woman, Elsa, shows her guests pictures on the mantle:
My husband was killed at Verdun. My husband and my brothers. Liège, Cherieroi, Tannenberg. Our greatest victories. And now the table is too big.
The camera lingers on a large dining table, with only Elsa's young daughter sitting at it, facing a future without her father and uncles, victims of a senseless war.
When Rosenthal's injured leg has healed, the escaped prisoners inform Elsa that they must leave. Elsa knows that this day would come, but is saddened at being alone again. "You'll never know the happiness the sound of a man's step in the house gave me."
As Maréchal and Rosenthal traipse through the Alps in an attempt to reach Switzerland, they discuss what the future holds for them if they make it:
Rosenthal: You'll rejoin your squadron and I my unit, to fight again.
Maréchal: We've got to end this stinking war. Maybe it'll be the last.
Rosenthal: You've still got illusions.
A contingent of German soldiers spots the two off in the distance. As they raise their guns to shoot, they are ordered to stop:
Soldier 1: Don't shoot. They're in Switzerland.
Soldier 2: All the better for them.
In all likelihood, of course, it's not better for them. Their reward for successfully reaching Switzerland is to return to war, a pointless and barbarous conflict that will either end their lives or scar them irrevocably.
Grand Illusion is a masterpiece, a film that at once examines the futile nature of war and the boundless optimism of those forced to wage it. Watch it and ask yourself if the current war is not just as wasteful, just as hopeless and just as likely to result in the expanded power of the central government at the expense of the liberty of the individual, and at the cost of countless lives and billions of dollars.
An interesting note about the original film negative and its survival: Joseph Goebbels considered the film "Cinematic Public Enemy Number One" and had it seized when the Germans occupied France. German film archivist Frank Hensel, a Nazi officer in Paris, shipped it to Berlin. The Russians captured it while they occupied Berlin and sent it to an archive in Moscow. Later, in the 1960s, the Russian film archive traded some prints, including Grand Illusion, with an archive in Toulouse, France. The new owners were unaware that the print was the original negative, a fact they only discovered thirty-odd years later. The film has since been restored, including new subtitles.
Unfortunately, my video store does not stock the restored version. Hopefully, yours does. But either way, watching Grand Illusion leaves one with the indelible impression that war is hell on earth, perpetrated by rapacious politicians to expand their power. War is the health of the State.
The Great Anti-War Films:
October 16, 2001