La Grande Illusion

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #1: Jean Renoir’s Grand Illu­sion

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.