Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Jean Renoir, Charles Spaak
Producers: Albert Pinkovitch, Frank Rollmer
Photography: Christian Matras
Music: Jospeh Kosma
Cast: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Julien Carette, Georges Peclet, Werner Florian, Jean Daste, Sylvain Itkine, Gaston Modot, Marcel Dalio
When it comes to American audiences embracing international cinema, Jean Renoir’s French masterpiece La Grand Illusion (1937) may have been more important than any other film to date. It was the first foreign film ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture — and should have won over Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938). Even to this day, the film carries a certain allure, leaving traces in everything from The Great Escape (1963) to Hogan’s Heroes (1965) to The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and joining Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) as the only foreign language films to make the WGA’s list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays (2005). Indeed, The Grand Illusion is a masterpiece most filmmakers be proud to hang their hats on as their crowning achievement. What a testament that for Renoir, who followed two years later with The Rules of the Game (1939), it’s just a close second.
The film introduces viewers to life inside a German POW camp during World War I, where soldiers from France, Russia and Britain all come together under the same prisoner’s roof. As they fraternize and dig escape tunnels, all outside notions of nationalities, class and race disappear. Even the stately German commandant Von Rauffenstein (Erich Von Stroheim) behaves cordially toward, and ultimately befriends, French Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay). As critic Joshua Klein writes in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, “You can sense that Von Stroheim’s melancholy commandant really wishes he were socializing with the French officers under different, less severe circumstances.” But alas, the “rules of the game” of the outside world are too much. So when Boeldieu creates a diversion to allow his buddies Marechal (a mechanic) and Rosenthal (a Jew) to escape, Rauffenstein is left with no other option but to shoot him, and then use his fancy white glove to apologetically shut Boeldieu’s eyes on his deathbed. All the while, Marechal and Rosenthal escape off into the mountains, receive the care of a sympathetic German woman and cross over into the snow-covered sanctuary of Switzerland.
As Gerald Mast points out in A Brief History of the Movies, Marechal and Rosenthal represent the new Europe, while the officers Rauffenstein (Germany) and Boeldieu (France) are the remnants of a dying culture, left to destroy itself. When Rauffenstein plucks the final rose off of a plant, it’s his way of mourning not only Boeldieu’s death, but also the end of a way of life. Throughout the film, Rauffenstein is shown struggling to grasp the concept that so-called “inferiors” like mechanics or Jews should be treated with equality. In one particular exchange, Boeldieu asks Rauffenstein why he trusts his word and not the word of the others:
Rauffenstein: The word of a Marechal and a Rosenthal?
Boeldieu: Their word is as good as mine.
The two have a similar conversation later when Rauffenstein invites Boeldieu to his castle. Boeldieu asks why he is getting such preferential treatment:
Boeldieu: Why did you make an exception of me by inviting me here?
Rauffenstein: Because your name is Boeldieu, career officer in the French Army, and I am Rauffenstein, career officer in the German Imperial Army.
Boeldieu: But my friends are officers too.
Rauffenstein: A Marechal and a Rosenthal, officers?
Boeldieu: They’re fine officers.
Rauffenstein: A fine legacy of the French Revolution.
Boeldieu: Neither you nor I can stop the march of time.
Clearly, Rauffenstein is operating under an illusion, the same “grand illusion” that still exists today – that certain people, classes or nations are above others. In this way, the film beats a very humanistic drum. As Marechal and Rosenthal prepare to cross over into Switzerland, Marechal looks across the snow-covered ground and asks how one is supposed to know it’s Switzerland:
Marechal: It all looks the same.
Rosenthal: You can’t see the borders. They’re human creations. Nature could care less.
What a statement – that we humans have been given a beautiful creation, but have defiled it with our petty notions of hate and division. Such a theme would be powerful at any time in history, but was especially so upon the film’s release. Least we forget that the film was released just three years before the Nazis occupied France, and that it was Goebbels’ first order of business to ban The Grand Illusion. It’s almost as if Renoir saw what was coming and used the backdrop of World War I to comment on the impending Second World War:
Marechal: We’ve got to end this damn war and make it the last.
Rosenthal: Don’t delude yourself.
The shared root of the words “delusion” and “illusion” is no coincidence. Is Renoir saying that the real “grand illusion” is the idea that humanity can move beyond war? As Marechal and Rosenthal trek off into the distance at the end of the film, we’re left to ponder this very question, a question that remains as relevant today as it did in 1937. Now that’s a timeless masterpiece.