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
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
There they find that von Rauffenstein is the camp commandant,
overseeing a mountain fortress--the stark bleakness of which is
The future is also presaged in a scene where Russian prisoners receive
a massive care package from the Tsarina. They open it
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;
Is it not a sign of immense progress that the masses
should have "ideas," that is to say, should be cultured? By no means.
When all these things are lacking there is no culture;
there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism. And let us not
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.
-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) (Imdb.com)
-Encyclopædia Britannica : Renoir, Jean
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "Jean Renoir"
-FILMOGRAPHY : Jean Renoir (Imdb.com)
-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, LewRockwell.com)
-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)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd