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Grand Illusion [La Grande Illusion] (1937)

It seems almost certain that I have misunderstood this film, so please take what follows with all due skepticism.  At any rate, Grand Illusion struck me as a kind of film version of Jose Ortega y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses.  It is an elegy for the passing of the old aristocratic order and a no more than wary acceptance of the new rule of the masses.

The story focuses on four soldiers in WWI prison camps. Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), a rigid (literally) German
aristocrat and officer, captures two Frenchmen : fellow aristocrat Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay); and a common mechanic,
Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin ).  He treats them to a sumptuous lunch and is almost apologetic for having to bind them over to prison.  With Maréchal he is polite, but with Boeldieu there is an instant and obvious cultural connection--they recognize each other as gentlemen.

Arriving in prison, Maréchal and Boeldieu are introduced to  Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) a generous and friendly Jewish  banker. Maréchal is surprised to find that he is more comfortable with Rosenthal, whose Jewishness would seem likely to set him apart, than with Boeldieu, who it turns out is much more alien by reason of class differences.  The three participate in an attempt to tunnel out
of the prison, but just as they are ready to make their break are shipped to a new camp.

There they find that von Rauffenstein is the camp commandant,  overseeing a mountain fortress--the stark bleakness of which is
relieved only by a single blossom that von Rauffenstein tends.  The imposing aerie is supposed to make it much more difficult for these recidivists to escape.  He greets them warmly, promises to treat them according to French rules, and extracts their promise not to attempt a break.  Over the course of time, Boeldieu relaxes his guard somewhat, adopting a bemused but fatalistic stance towards the levelling effect of the war.  This is the "Grand Illusion" of the title, the imposed brotherhood of all men that occurs because of the war, but which can't possibly survive it.  Yet, Boeldieu is obviously conscious of the fact this kind of flattened society is a preview of the world to come, that there will be no place for him and his class after the peace.

The future is also presaged in a scene where Russian prisoners receive a massive care package from the Tsarina.  They open it
eagerly, expecting to find vodka.  When they find books instead they set fire to them.  They are all physical appetite; of what use to them are the products of high culture?

So when the men work out a plan of escape, but one that will require a man to stay behind and create a diversion, Boeldieu insists that he be the one to make the sacrifice.  Though the scheme succeeds, Boeldieu forces von Rauffenstein to shoot him.  As the Frenchman lies dying, the two have the following exchange :

    Rauffenstein:  Please forgive me.

    Boeldieu:  Iíd have done the same thing. French or German, duty is duty.

    Rauffenstein:  Is it very bad?

    Boeldieu:  I wouldnít have believed a bullet in the stomach could hurt so.

    Rauffenstein:  I aimed at your leg.

    Boeldieu:  At 150 yards, with poor visibility, and I was running.

     Rauffenstein:  Please donít excuse it. I was clumsy.

    Boeldieu:  Of us two, itís not I whoís to be pitied. Iíll be done for ? soon. But you, youíre not finished yet.

    Rauffenstein:  Not finished dragging out a useless existence.

    Boeldieu:  For an ordinary man, itís terrible to die in war, but for you and me, itís a good solution.

Upon his death, von Rauffenstein snips the blossom too, natural beauty having been extinguished from the world.

The final section of the film follows Maréchal and ÝRosenthal, as they are helped by a German widow, who hides them on her farm.  She and Maréchal fall in love and he promises to return to her after the War.  The movie ends with Maréchal and ÝRosenthal slipping over the border into Switzerland, one step ahead of a German patrol.  They trudge across a virgin expanse of snow into an uncertain future, but one in which we know that the Boeldieus and the von Rauffensteins have no role to play.  Director Jean Renoir thus offers us two endings, one clearly tragic, in the passing of Boeldieu, the other rather more ambiguously hopeful, in the salvation, to uncertain purposes, of Maréchal and ÝRosenthal.

Now, I'd always heard that this was an anti-war movie; it is surely nothing of the kind.  For one thing, the war it depicts is nearly bloodless.  The only killing in the entire movie comes in Boieldieu's noble self-sacrifice, a scene of beauty, not of horror.  For another, Mr. Renoir certainly seems to be saying that men are at their best in wartime, with different races, religions, and classes working together as brothers in arms, with even enemies respectful toward one another.  And, though from what I understand, Mr. Renoir was at least sympathetic to Communism in these years between the wars, it is shocking to see how nostalgic the film is toward the chivalric aristocrats and how skeptical toward the materialistic masses.  Of course, with the Soviet Union and its mass revolution having already turned murderous and with all of Europe about to be plunged into a bloodbath of genocide and total war, largely at the hands of Adolph Hitler and his party of the masses, Mr. Renoir's doubts were more than justified.  It is, after all, as hard to imagine Boeldieu or von Rauffenstein ordering the deaths of innocents as it is to imagine the rule of the book-burning mob leading to anything other than wanton slaughter.

As I said at the outset, the movie calls to mind the warnings of Jose Ortega y Gasset, who seven years earlier wrote :

    WE take it, then, that there has happened something supremely paradoxical, but which was in truth most natural;
    from the very opening-out of the world and of life for the average man, his soul has shut up within him. Well, then,
    I maintain that it is in this obliteration of the average soul that the rebellion of the masses consists, and in this in its
    turn lies the gigantic problem set before humanity to-day.

    Is it not a sign of immense progress that the masses should have "ideas," that is to say, should be cultured? By no means.
    The "ideas" of the average man are not genuine ideas, nor is their possession culture. An idea is a putting truth in
    checkmate. Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game
    imposed by it. It is no use speaking of ideas when there is no acceptance of a higher authority to regulate them, a series
    of standards to which it is possible to appeal in a discussion. These standards are the principles on which culture rests.
    I am not concerned with the form they take. What I affirm is that there is no culture where there are no standards to which
    our fellow-men can have recourse. There is no culture where there are no principles of legality to which to appeal.  There is
    no culture where there is no acceptance of certain final intellectual positions to which a dispute may be referred.  There is no
    culture where economic relations are not subject to a regulating principle to protect interests involved. There is no culture
    where aesthetic controversy does not recognise the necessity of justifying the work of art.

    When all these things are lacking there is no culture; there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism. And let us not
    deceive ourselves, this is what is beginning to appear in Europe under the progressive rebellion of the masses. The traveller
    who arrives in a barbarous country knows that in that territory there are no ruling principles to which it is possible to appeal.
    Properly speaking, there are no barbarian standards. Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.

It may not have been Jean Renoir's intent, but at least this viewer got the impression that what was being portrayed on screen was the death of the culture those standards secured and the rise of mass barbarism, though the whole is admittedly coated with a delicate patina of hope.   Unfortunately, the Second World War, which was fast approaching, would make even that slight hope seem deluded.  This is a film of profoundly conservative, if overly optimistic, sensibilities and a great one.

N.B. : In a case of life imitating art, one of the first things the Nazis supposedly did when they took Paris was to confiscate copies of this movie.  And in a delightful twist of fate, the discovery of one of those seized and subsequently forgotten prints has made it possible for the film to be restored in an apparently far superior version to the one that has been shown for years and which I saw.  The restored version is available on DVD.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Jean Renoir
    -VIDEO: Rules of the Game (Allen Arkush, Trailers from Hell)
-ESSAY: Aim For What’s Reasonable: Leadership Lessons From Director Jean Renoir (Farnham Street)
    -ESSAY: How Jean Renoir’s Great Anti-War Film Grand Illusion Became “Cinematographic Enemy Number One” to the Nazis (Open Culture, December 20th, 2021)
-ESSAY: Eric Rohmer, Novelist (Trevor Cribben Merrill, 10/10/21, University Bookman)     -INFO : Grande illusion, La (1937) (
    -Encyclopædia Britannica : Renoir, Jean
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Jean Renoir (
    -World Cinema : Directors : Jean Renoir
    -ESSAY :   How the First World War Changed Movies Forever (STUART KLAWANS, November 19, 2000, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : The Great Anti-War Films : Grand Illusion (Rick Gee,
    -FILM SUMMARY: Grand Illusion (Robert Yahnke, Resources for Teaching Film)
    -ARCHIVES : Jean Renoir (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Stuart Klawans, The Nation)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Alexander Walker, London Evening Standard)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Wesley Morris, SF Examiner)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Katia Saint-Peron, Edinburgh U Film Society)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Tom Block, Culture Vulture)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Chris Fujiwara, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Acquarello, Strictly Film School)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Doug Pratt's DVD Review)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (John Nesbit, Suite 101)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Sanderson Beck)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (CKG)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Play)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Ivana Redwine)
    -REVIEW : of Grand Illusion (Magic of the Movies)
    -REVIEW : of The Rules of the Game (Stacey Richter, Tucson Weekly)

    -FILMOGRAPHY : Erich Oswald Stroheim (
    -REVIEW : of  STROHEIM  By Arthur Lennig (Jeanine Basinger, NY Times Book Review)