The futility of war was never more intelligently articulated with wit and poignancy than in Jean Renoir’s 'La Grand Illusion', a prison-escape film which presents almost no conflict or action in favour of a sharp commentary on the absurdities of war.
Grand Illusion (1937) dir. Jean Renoir
Starring: Jean Gabin, Erich Von Stroheim, Dito Parlo, Pierre Fresnay
By Alan Bacchus
Here war is a gentlemanly game, where mutual respect and admiration for each other extend from the front lines to war camps. In the opening scene the German captain hosts a shot-down officer for a splendid dinner. Everyone is polite and accommodating and orderly - a far cry from the gut-wrenching pain and agony the soldiers on the ground conduct against each other. I’m not sure if this was the reality of WWI, but for sophisticated cinema Renoir is making a statement not unlike his satire of class system stupidity in Rules of the Game. The officers’ first meal is ‘the best they ever had' - chicken, foie gras, fine spirits and wine.
If it was so good for these soldiers at these prisons then where’s the drama? I can’t answer this, but Renoir doesn't need traditional notions of cinematic conflict to make his point and tell an engrossing dramatic story.
Admittedly, it took me a few viewings for this picture to really sink in. It's consciously anti-climactic, not a traditional war film at all, and not even a traditional prisoner of war film either. There are three distinct stories. At first we see Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) being shot down behind enemy lines in WWI Germany. As officers they’re greeted at the German base with honour and respect by their captor, Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim).
They’re then sent to a formal POW camp, and once locked into their prison cells the pair discovers an affable group of international prisoners. Despite their joyous carousing they’re also plotting their escape, tunnelling underneath the camp and beyond the fence. The procedural mechanics of their scheme are choreographed beautifully – arguably influencing the granddaddy of prison escape films, The Great Escape.
But it’s an anti-climax, as Maréchal, de Boeldieu and their new friend Rosenthal are shipped away to another camp in the mountain region, headed by the same Captain Rauffenstein from earlier. Due to Rauffenstein’s aristocratic roots and respect for de Boeldieu’s lineage, their stay is even more laid back and they enjoy good food and respectful treatment. But again, it’s a rouse with the trio plotting their escape to return home and endure more fighting.
And so after a dramatic escape, aided by the sacrifice of de Boeldieu, Renoir changes gears by showing Rosenthal and Maréchal’s comfy stay as borders at a local German widow’s home. As Maréchal and the girl fall in love, Renoir remarkably shifts us emotionally with a deeply emotional love story.
If this film was made today, we would have seen the love story placed before the trio’s movement to Rauffenstein’s camp, thus ending the film with the action-oriented escape and likely the reunification of the estranged war torn lovers at the end. But somehow, as arranged by Renoir, it works.
For Renoir theme runs deeper than conflict, and here his commentary on patriotism is thought provoking. For Maréchal, de Boeldieu and Rosenthal their desire to escape from a prison despite being well fed and far from the carnage of the trenches stems from their instinctual need to subvert the enemy and fight the war by whatever means necessary.
While Von Stroheim is characterized like an Emperor with No Clothes, I don’t see this as an anti-war statement. Instead, Maréchal's and de Boeldieu’s duty as soldiers to escape and fight is as patriotic as it gets. And with the onset of WWII at the time of the making of this film, La Grand Illusion is as encouraging to French citizens to stand up against aggressive authority as any war propaganda at the time.
La Grande Illusion is available on Blu-ray from Alliance Films in Canada.