Filmed in 1937, and unaware of the impending doom of World War II, La Grande Illusion is a relevant cautionary fable on the futility of war and the immeasurable toll of human suffering. Often featuring prominently in lists compiling the greatest films about war and frequently cited as one of the greatest films ever made, Jean Renoir’s haunting elegy for the tragedy of The Great War is an often witty, sometimes sublimely poignant, frequently moving and lucidly insightful examination of ‘the grand illusion’ that is war: that is, the illusion that any conflict could truly be a means to peace.
La Grande Illusion charts the fortunes of two French airmen taken captive and held as prisoners of war in German territory: Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a wealthy and aristocratic officer, and Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin), a burly but intelligent working-class mechanic. They are both brought to a P.O.W. camp, where they befriend Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a prosperous Jewish banker, and the commander, Von Rauffenstein (played excellently by Erich von Stroheim), takes an immediate liking to Boeldieu. Boeldieu and Rauffenstein belong to the same social class and believe that the political and intellectual ideals of the Europe they once knew will soon be a thing of the past with the rise to power of the proletariat. Upon discovering that their fellow prisoners have been digging an escape tunnel all of them agree to help – Maréchal and Rosenthal willingly, de Boeldieu out of a sense of duty. As he cutely puts it, when on a golf course, one plays golf, and while in a prison camp, one tries to escape – it’s the accepted thing to do. As Rauffenstein and Boeldieu become friends, and the other soldiers banter as much with the German guards as with each other, the characters seem involved less in the horrors of war than in some vast, petty game, until news of an escapee being shot by the guards is brought back and the deadly consequences of this game are brought into sharp relief.
Renoir employs a subtle yet mesmeric and provocative style, frequently copied and utilized by future filmmakers such as Robert Altman and Martin Scorcese, using mundane events and conversations to shape the drama and pull focus around the motivations, allegiances and personalities of each character. Renoir captures the turbulent climate of profound social and political change: the changing role of women highlighted in the chatter of the men about their women’s new radical fashions, the demise of aristocratic rule in Rauffenstein’s lament for his and Boeldieu’s lineage and the creation of new wealth and new social order in a free market economy. Long, rapid tracking shots and the erratic use of sound reflect the chaos and uncertainty, for instance with the reassuring melody of Marechal’s harmonica juxtaposing his emotional breakdown, and the arranged diversion of the German guards using flutes.
Restored and more relevant than ever, Renoir’s masterpiece is in essence a film about common values and decency often now seen as old fashioned or naïve – the ability we all carry within us to act with warmth and respect towards our fellow man and create bonds that transcend and go deeper than national boundaries and political allegiances. Whilst this sounds warm and fuzzy, and Renoir’s compassionate storytelling, gentle camerawork and the humour of his actors’ performances bolster this – it’s also important to remember that this is an anti-war film made on the eve of one conflict and looking back at another and should serve as a warning. Renoir’s film is as much about the rigidity of class and enduring social splits as it is about banding together as ‘brothers’ in a crisis, a topic still of great relevance and urgency in today’s society if the recent riots across the UK are any measure. La Grande Illusion laid the foundation for future war films in which the action almost takes a back seat, instead portraying a past generation on the cusp of extinction as the modern era dawns with empathy and sorrow – just watch Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or A Matter of Life and Death (or even our review of recent Korean war epic My Way) to see Renoir’s enduring legacy. Rarely now are such sharply political films made so beautifully and successfully attain to be so entertaining, elegant and humane.
Words > Chris McQuire