This movie is a powerful anti-war film that will nevertheless be a bit difficult for me to keep in context since its message today has likely changed significantly since it was first shot. At a most basic level, this is a World War I prison escape film. At another level it is an illustration of a paradigm shift: the destruction of the old world aristocracy and birth of the modern social contract. Permeating all of this is the Grand Illusion itself; that nationalism and patriotism limit more than they specify. This point comes across with the most efficacy when Maréchal [Jean Gabin] and Rosenthal [Marcel Dalio] are about to cross the border from Germany to Switzerland after escaping from their prison camp. After Maréchal says that he can’t tell the difference between Germany and Switzerland, Rosenthal states “Frontiers are an invention of men. Nature doesn’t give a hoot.” Throughout the film, the ideological creations of men consistently appear to cause more harm than good.
This strong negative theme is balanced and, I think, ultimately outweighed by the consistently positive behavior of unrestricted human nature. This tension is what keeps La Grande Illusion applicable after all of these years. The film was shot in 1937, on the cusp of World War II, and reconstructed from fragments by Renoir after the war. It was a huge hit before the war, but like the liner notes for the DVD mention, after the horrors of WWII it served as a reminder that the Germans were people too.
Time and time again, between Erich von Stroheim’s crippled Capt. von Rauffenstein and Pierre Fresnay’s Capt. de Boeldieu, between the German widow Elsa [whose entire male family has been killed in Germany's "greatest victories"] and Maréchal and even between the French Jew Rosenthal and Maréchal, we see people that would get along famously if the war wasn’t in the way. Ironically, they’d never be together in the first place without the war, but because of it, duty becomes inextricably bound with regret. von Rauffenstein is forced to shoot de Boeldieu who is sacrificing himself so that Maréchal and Rosenthal can escape. Afterward, he is wracked by regret that his duty made him kill a man he considered a friend. As both an honor to de Boeldieu and punishment to himself, von Rauffenstein clips the flower off of his geranium, the only flower in the entire castle. [I must admit that I got a bit misty right there. Erich von Stroheim is such a good actor.] Similarly, Maréchal must return to France and the fighting, leaving behind Elsa, with whom he has fallen in love. He promises to return, but in war there is slim chance he will do so.
The Grand Illusion is that there is anything honorable about war. The only good acts occur when the characters act from their hearts, and the bad acts occur when they bow to duty.