I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been bred on a certain brand of war movie, but I naively went into Grand Illusion expecting a typical P.O.W. drama. In the back of my mind, I was even ready to compare this title to later works like Stalag 17 (1953) or The Great Escape (1963). Honestly, what was I thinking? With a Jean Renoir film no less.
But that’s the marvelous quality of this film. On the surface level, it looks like an archetype that we are used to. War is being waged. Soldiers are captured. Soldiers are trying to escape. In this case, the particulars are a group of French P.O.W.s in a German camp during WWI. You have the basic idea certainly, but you will not understand the power of this film with such a description. With such a set-up you expect Germans to be the craven villains and the French to be the courageous boys making their nation proud. But that’s not quite the case. It’s more complicated than that.
It’s no surprise that this film was banned by Mussolini, confiscated by Goebbels after the invasion of France, and shown in a private screening to FDR. Certainly, WWII had not started yet, but in 1937 Hitler was on the rise and a wave of fascism mixed with patriotism was flooding Europe. In the midst of such a climate, Jean Renoir, a master of so-called poetic realism, lays down a film like this. It has war, it has patriotism, and it even has enemy factions, but the difference is that Renoir gives them humanity. He casts even his “enemy” in a sympathetic light and suggests that there is a humanity that lies inside of human beings of all different classes, creeds, and nationalities (but he also acknowledges racial discrimination still exists).
Early on in the film von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) shoots down two enemy flyers in Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Marechal (Jean Gabin). However, instead of sending them away to the prisoner of war camp, he shows them the ultimate form of hospitality by inviting them to dine at his table. The cynic inside of me thought, “this must be a trap, a gimmick of some kind because he is a German after all, and they’re supposed to be the villains.” Pretty narrow-minded of me, and of course nothing happens. They share a meal and even find some common ground before going off to the camp.
This next part of the film reminds me the most of a film like Stalag 17 because there is the camaraderie, the mixing of all sorts of different people, but they are all fighting against a common enemy so there is a solidarity between them. For instance, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) shares his lavish care packages from back home, Cartier keeps things lively as a former vaudeville performer who is constantly cracking jokes, and even Boledieu, who is of an aristocratic background is generally well liked by everyone. Together they undertake the project of escaping the camp.
Of course, there’s still time for musical performances with song and drag and impromptu renditions of “La Marseillaise.” For such a disturbance Marechal (Gabin) gets solitary confinement, but there never seems to be any malice behind it. It feels more like the protocol of war, and he is let out soon enough. The way things work out the gang is transferred all to different camps and their tunnel is utterly wasted.
De Boldieu and Marechal’s final stop is literally a fortress that is run by their old acquaintance, the now badly maimed Von Rauffenstein. He is as civil as he has ever was but still advises them not to try escape. All the same, he regrets his reassignment and seems generally wistful about the whole situation. Meanwhile, the two officers once again come in contact with Rosenthal. The trio puts together a planned diversion led by De Boldieu which will let the other two escape. It puts von Rauffenstein in another regrettable position, but Rosenthal and Marechal do get away.
As fugitives, their dispositions fluctuate from positivity to loathing, and finally a contented state of comfort when they stay at the farmhouse of a young German woman named Elsa (Dita Parlo from L’Atalante). This is another section of the film that highlights human relationships in an extraordinary way. We expect her to be totally poisoned against “the enemy” and yet she is not. Elsa seems to see the human beings behind the French uniforms and comes to trust and almost rely on their companionship. As Rosenthal recovers from a leg injury, Marechal and Elsa get closer and closer. The time comes for the two men to leave and it is an absolutely heart-wrenching goodbye. It’s so different than our initial preconceptions.
And soon after the film ends, not with some dramatic capturing or even really a chase. But the two men get across the border to snowy Switzerland and that’s where we leave them. Except not with the usual jadedness or even the adrenaline rush of a run-of-the-mill war thriller. Grand Illusion is more piercing than that, speaking to the relationships that can cross war zones if we are only willing to see them.
Jean Gabin is a wonderfully honest-faced actor and the closest description I can give is a man with a Spencer Tracy-like visage except more imposing. Marcell Dalio did some wonderful work with Renoir, and it is unfortunate that he was relegated to such small roles in films like Casablanca, but he is nevertheless even memorable in that. Erich von Stroheim was a titan in his own right as a director and actor, but he was somewhat of a fading star by this point. However, he plays his character with a civility and sense of honor which I have never quite seen equaled before. It was a special performance that reflects a dying breed. The aristocratic soldier of the highest order in all circumstances.
Renoir himself summed up the film years later as being about human relationships and fittingly said the following: “I am confident that such a question is so important today that if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say ‘goodbye’ to our beautiful world.” Here is a master recognizing such a vital key to our very humanity — our personal interactions with one another.