La Grande Illusion is the greatest anti-war movie ever made yet it shows no bloody battles, no heaps of corpses, no violent explosions; it is a movie that glorifies Peace. Director Jean Renoir drew on his own experience as a flyer in the First World War as background — Jean Gabin actually wears Renoir’s old uniform throughout the movie.
The film opens in the messhall of a German fighter squadron during World War I. A pilot named von Rauffenstein (played by Erich von Stroheim) announces that he has shot down a French plane and that its two-man crew have been taken prisoner. Invite them to lunch, says von Rauffenstein, if they are officers. One of the other fliers begins mixing punch. This situation would be quite familiar to movie audiences in the 1930s: aviators in the Great War were supposed to be “Knights of the Air” and given to chivalrous behavior.
The French prisoners are brought in: de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Maréchal (Jean Gabin). Rauffenstein recognizes Boeldieu as a social equal (one is a “von” and the other a “de”) but shows little interest in Maréchal. There is pleasant conversation and food and drink. A German notices that Maréchal is not eating because, with one arm in a sling, he cannot cut his meat. The German cuts it up for him. Then the Frenchmen are led away to a prison camp in Germany.
Right away the two fliers become involved in an escape plan that involves digging a tunnel under the prison barracks. Meanwhile the camp is preparing a musical show. While the prisoners play with costumes and goof around, Boeldieu looks out a window and sees a group of uniformed boys being drilled. “Outside, children pretending to be men, inside, men pretending to be children.”
The musical gala proceeds. A young man in drag arrests everyone’s attention. This is one of several occasions in the film where Renoir reminds us that these are men removed from women, that their situation is unnatural and wrong. In the last part of the film we see the flip side of this situation, a farm run by a war widow who lives in a world without men.
Maréchal learns that Fort Douaumont, lost to the Germans at the beginning of the battle of Verdun, has been recaptured. He leaps on the stage and announces the victory to the prisoner audience. The men stand and sing the Marseillaise. The German guards break up the show and Maréchal is placed in solitary. When he is released he learns that Fort Douaumont is back in German hands.
Throughout the film Renoir uses almost no closeup shots and few shots that contain only one person; he shows that humans are social animals by photographing them mostly in groups. The shots of the meal given Maréchal and de Boeldieu by the German fliers emphasize human interaction, as do those of the prisoners working on their escape or preparing their musical. Solitary confinement is an unnatural state for humans and Maréchal begins to go mad. A guard gives him a harmonica, one of the film’s many instances of kindness or compassion shown by one person to another.
Maréchal retains his sanity. When he returns to the barracks, the tunnel is almost finished but before it can be used, the prisoners are transferred. On his way out, Maréchal tries to tell the incoming prisoners about the escape tunnel, but they are English and do not understand his French. The notion of language difference dividing people is another of Renoir’s recurrent motifs but, as we shall see, it is not an insurmountable barrier.
Some time later, Maréchal and de Boeldieu are assigned to a prison camp in an ancient castle. There they are re-united with Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish POW they met earlier on, and with von Rauffenstein, who runs the camp. Rauffenstein reads their records: each man has attempted several escapes. He informs them that escape is impossible and asks Boeldieu for his promise not to attempt to escape. Boeldieu agrees but asks why Rauffenstein didn’t request such promises from Maréchal and Rosenthal, “Their word is as good as mine.” “Perhaps,” sniffs Rauffenstein.
The two aristocrats speak in French, German, and English and switch freely from one language to another. Both men realize that their world will not survive the war; the future belongs to people like Maréchal. Boeldieu accepts this fate and sees it as probably a good thing. Rauffenstein is dismayed at this “result of your [French] revolution.” They hold this conversation in the vast halls of a medieval castle.Rauffenstein has been in a terrible plane crash and can no longer fly. He wears gloves to hide the terrible burns on his hands and an elaborate brace for his back, broken in two places. A lovely shot pans over a table of items needed when he dresses in the morning: grooming gear and medical apparatus together. Rauffenstein can no longer be a combat officer; he is reduced to being a prison warden, a role that he despises.
Rosenthal comes from a wealthy banking family and gets great parcels of food sent from home which he shares with his fellow prisoners. Possible anti-Semitism is gently thrust aside; ethnicity is not a barrier to humanity. (There is at least one black prisoner shown in the movie but he has no lines.)
Maréchal, Boeldieu, and Rosenthal come up with an escape plan — that is, two will escape while one creates a diversion. Boeldieu insists on staying behind; he does not mention the promise he made to Rauffenstein. The plan works: Maréchal and Rosenthal get away. Boeldieu is confronted by Rauffenstein who pleads with the man to surrender and not force him to shoot. Boeldieu refuses and Rauffenstein shoots him.
The mortally wounded Boeldieu lies in bed. “Who knew a stomach wound would hurt so much,” he says. “I meant to hit you in the leg,” Rauffenstein apologizes, “It was a poor shot.” Boeldieu comforts him, “In the dark at a hundred and fifty meters, it wasn’t a bad shot at all.” He says finally, “It is a terrible thing for a common man, to die in battle. For those like us, it is the best way out.” He dies. The death of this French nobleman in a crumbling German castle is the only death we witness in this war movie but, of course, it stands for a lot more.
Seeing the snow on the mountains between Germany and Switzerland, Rosenthal remarks that “Nature has no respect for borders.” Nor does Nature much care about nationalities and can bypass language issues as well. Renoir said that the world is not divided vertically, into countries, but horizontally, into classes. In this movie the aristocracy and common men are antagonists. Renoir returned to this topic with Rules of the Game in 1939. Aristocrats were interesting as a doomed species and Renoir treated them gently and with wry humor.
Maréchal and Rosenthal make their way toward the Swiss border but Rosenthal has hurt his leg and finds it more and more difficult to walk. The two are starving and have a quarrel. Maréchal leaves Rosenthal and walks away, the two of them are singing a comic song at each other, “There Was A Little Sailor”, but the joking lyrics have one hungry man cannibalizing another. Maréchal suddenly realizes what he is singing, stops, and goes back to help Rosenthal.
The two escapees drag themselves to a small farm where they are discovered by Elsa (Dita Parlo), the woman who runs it. Maréchal tries to speak to her but they do not understand each other’s language. Elsa sees Rosenthal’s hurt leg and takes the men into her house. She bandages Rosenthal and gives food, bread and milk, to the hungry men. A German patrol comes by but Elsa does not give away their presence at her farm.
Elsa’s husband was killed at Verdun. She points to a picture of her three brothers and names the battles where each fell, each one a great German victory. Her dining table has chairs turned up on it — there is no one to sit there except Else and her daughter, Lotte. Now the two men become part of the household. Rosenthal speaks some German and Maréchal begins to learn the language. On Christmas Eve Rosenthal and Maréchal play Santa and construct a crêche for Lotte. That night also, Maréchal and Elsa make love.
Spring comes and now the two escaped prisoners must leave this peaceful place and make for the Swiss border. Maréchal embraces Elsa one last time and promises to return — if he survives the war. The two men talk of splitting up but they are still together when a German patrol spots them making their way through the snow. They raise their rifles and fire off a volley.
I first saw la Grande Illusion in 1971 or ’72 after some years of anti-war movies spawned by Vietnam. The common tactic in an anti-war film was to be as bloody and horrific as possible and to end on a tragic note with the meaningless death of the protagonist(s). So I thought I knew what was coming. But after the first few shots, the German patrol leader stops his men: “They’re over the border. They’re in Switzerland now.” “Good for them,” says a soldier, and I felt my heart lift. The film ends with a shot of the two men in the distance climbing up through the snow.
So, Renoir’s film is anti-war, anti-nationalist, and shows aristocrats as doomed beings. The nobility of war is an illusion, as is national honor. All men are brothers, no matter their nationality or ethnicity. None of this went down well with certain Europeans in 1937: Josef Goebbels proclaimed la Grande Illusion to be “cinematic enemy number one” and banned it from being shown in Germany. Franklin Roosevelt, on the other hand, said it was a movie that every free man or woman should see. When France fell in 1940, the Nazis destroyed every print they could find. In the 1950s a print was cobbled together from the various reels that could be discovered but it was thought that the negative was lost. But No! The original negative was found and a restored version of Renoir’s movie was released in 1999. Currently this restored version is playing in certain cities.