Before we talk about the film, I’d like to shine some light upon the director, Jean Renoir. Born in Paris, he was the son of the impressionist painter Pierre Renoir. In World War I, he fought in the French army, and earned a Croix de Guerre for his heroism that left him suffering from wounds that would never heal properly. After the war, he began his film making, fled to the US during the German occupation of France in WWII and continued his work . Orson Welles considered him to be the greatest director of all time and most consider him to be the greatest French director.
Grand Illusion follows two French officers in WWI who are shot down over Germany by Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), captured and put in POW camps. Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is a lower class officer, a mechanic in civilian life and a bit hot-headed. Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) is calmer, of higher rank and is treated better by the Germans because of it. In their first camp, they share a room with men who are working on an escape tunnel. The tunnel construction scenes are very tense and don’t spare the dangers. Later, Maréchal and de Boeldieu are joined by Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and moved to a 13th century castle converted into a fortress. There de Boeldieu is reunited with von Rauffenstein and is given special treatment due to his rank. Many times von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu muse together, realizing that once the war is over their high military rank will mean nothing. This drives a wedge between de Boeldieu and his French comrades, but becomes essential in an escape plan.
While the men are in the first POW camp, a major event in the war happens. Fort Douaumont is captured by the Germans and the French prisoners cannot escape hearing their celebration. It brings their moral a little lower, but they try to occupy themselves by organizing a play. The evening of their performance, they decide to invite their main captor, Sergant Arthur (Werner Florian), and fill the show with men in ridiculous women’s dancing costumes, singing and some defiant jokes towards their captors. The play is interrupted by the good news that the French have recaptured Fort Douaumont and all the POWs stand and sing together, celebrating right in front of their captors. It’s a very uplifting moment.
Grand Illusion has caused quite a ruckus in it’s time. In French, this is the first foreign language film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Later, as German occupation swept France, Joseph Goebbels (one of Hitler’s closest associates), made sure to take prints of the film calling Jean Renoir “Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1.” The film was assumed to be destroyed in air raids until 1945 when Russians entered Berlin and kept it in an archive in Moscow. Renoir would know nothing about his film’s capture or whereabouts until his restoration in the 1960’s. Isn’t film history fascinating?
If you’re a real film or history buff, Grand Illusion should be on your must-see list, but I don’t imagine many causal movie-goers dying to see this film. Pit falls for the in-betweeners is that the film is in French and with having to keep up with the subtitles, it can be easy to overlook the visual beauty Renoir brings. If you’re fluent in French, I say go for it, it was made for you.
“Out there, children play soldier… In here, soldiers play like children.”