Saturday, March 15, 2014

# 7 - La Grande Illusion (1937)

BACK-STORY:  “The Grand Illusion” is a film by the acclaimed French director Jean Renoir, son of the famous Impressionist painter.  He wrote the screenplay along with Charles Spaak.  Renoir was inspired by his own experiences as a reconnaissance pilot in WWI, but the film is far from autobiographical.  Von Stroheim wore Renoir’s uniform in the movie.  The title of the film was influenced by the book “The Great Illusion” by British economist Norman Angell.  Angell argued that war was useless because nations have common economic interests.  Good call, Norm!  The movie was famously banned in Italy and Germany.  Goebbels even had Renoir labeled “Cinematic Enemy #1” and attempted to have all copies of the prints destroyed.  Fortunately, a print was recovered by the U.S. Army (no, not by the Monuments Men) after the war and Renoir was able to accomplish a celebrated restoration.  The movie was the first foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

OPENING SCENE:  In the bonne homme atmosphere of a base canteen, a French pilot Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin) is called to the commander’s office and informed that he will be carrying a passenger on his next flight.  Capt. Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) is an upper class staff officer who wants a taste.  Jump to a German officer’s club where the ace Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) is returning from shooting down a French plane.  You don’t suppose?  You guessed it. Rauffenstein invites his two victims to dinner and establishes a bond with Boeldieu because they are both aristocrats.  Marechal is accepted because he is a fellow knight of the air.

SUMMARY:  Boeldieu and Marechal are sent to a prison camp that reminds of a summer camp.  This is definitely not a WWII POW movie.  They are put in a room with a group of everymen who dine on non-slop with wine and cognac.  The fare is provided by a Jewish prisoner named Rosenthal (Marcel Dallo) who belies the stereotype of his race by sharing the contents of his parcels.  (These guys eat better than their guards, but the guards are cool with this.)  The men get along smashingly well and even tolerate the snooty Boldieu as he tolerates the unwashed.  Which reminds me to mention that one of the men gives Marechal a foot bath!  What’s the opposite of a POW movie cliché?  One of the prisoners is a barracks clown.  It is like if Lou Costello was in “The Great Escape”.

Rosenthal receives one of his wonderful parcels
                The men are digging a tunnel and dispose of the dirt in a manner similar to “The Great Escape” except that they do not seem to care if German guards see them disposing of the evidence.  Speaking of clichés, the camp receives a trunk of women’s clothes which allows them to stage a vaudeville show.  The clown sings a jaunty number and British soldiers do their impression of the Folies Bergere.  In the middle of the show word arrives that the French have retaken Fort Douaumont in the Battle of Verdun.  This prompts Marechal to lead the POWs in “Le Marseillaisse”.   (Note to “Casablanca”: copy this.)  Marechal is thrown is solitary for this act of taunting.  He goes a little stir crazy since he is deprived of the gourmet dining.

Boldieu cleverly hides his bag of dirt
                Just when we are primed for the big tunnel escape scene, the men get sent to another prison camp.  When told, they take it remarkably well.  None curse their infernal luck.  Boeldieu and Marechal end up in a converted castle run by … Rauffenstein!  He is disabled from war wounds (which make him literally stiff) and has been relegated to camp commandant.  He is happy to see Boeldieu who is a kindred soul (they both have monacles).  Raffenstein reads a list of escape attempts they made at the interim camps.  Marechal and Boldieu have been quite the artists, which is news to the audience.  Raffenstein gives them a tour of the very picturesque castle (filmed in an actual castle in Alsace)  and proclaims it “inescapable” (like every other prison camp in war movie history).

Boeldieu and Rauffenstein discuss aristocratic stuff
                The quarters are even more comfortable than the first camp.  Once again, their roommates are all swell guys.  One of them is Rosenthal!  He and Marechal concoct an escape plan involving a homemade rope, but they will need a distraction.  Boeldieu suggests they have all the inmates play flutes and raise a ruckus.  Apparently the Red Cross has sent them 50 flutes.  When stage one of the racket has succeeded, Boldieu buys more time with a command performance with his flute as he roams the upper reaches of the castle.  Rauffenstein is forced to fire on his soulmate and mortally wounds him.  Boeldieu gets a great death scene with the heartbroken Raffenstein by his bedside. He tells the German: “For the commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy.  But for you and me, it’s a good way out.”  He warns Raffy that the days of the aristocracy are coming to an end and their kind will have trouble adjusting to the new social order after the war.

My first blog GIF!  confiscation of the flutes
                Marechal and Rosenthal are on the lam, but the biggest problems they face are themselves.  They have a falling out until they realize that everyone in this movie is supposed to like each other.  They find refuge at a German farm belonging to a war widow named Ella (Dita Parlo) who has lost her husband at Verdun and two brothers in other battles.  She holds no grudges and falls in love with Marechal.  Who wouldn’t?  She has the cutest little girl who, sticking with the main theme of the movie, is not a brat.

War is Hell!
CLOSING SCENE:  Hard to believe, but Ella’s home is even better than the German POW camps.  Marechal and Rosenthal settle in long enough for a relationship to develop between Marechal and Ella.  But as we all know, bros before hoes in war movies.  Marechal and Rosenthal must be moving on to help win the war against Ella’s country.  Marechal promises to return after the war.  (Is this the Grand Illusion?)  The movie leaves us hanging as it ends with the duo making it to Switzerland ahead of a German squad that nicely restrains from shooting them.  This movie does not have Nazis, it has Nicies.

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Sure.  There is no combat to offend anyone’s sensibilities.  There is bromance and romance. There is a cute little girl.  Jean Gabin was the French George Clooney of his day.  There are no villains to creep out anyone.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is not based on a true story, so historical accuracy is not a factor.  I was very curious about the portrayal of the prison camps because they were so different than what we are used to seeing in WWII POW movies.  It turns out that the relatively cushy life in the camps shown in the movie is fairly representative of reality.  The Germans did establish camps for officers (Offizierlagers) in castles, hotels, etc.  The officers got much better treatment than the enlisted.  They had more space, better food, and did not have to work.  They were allowed recreational activities like theatricals.  In some camps they were even allowed to go on walks outside the camp if they swore on their honor not to escape!  The Germans also had “reprisal camps” designed partly to punish escapees.  It seems likely that Marechal and Boldieu would have ended up in one of these instead of in the castle.  Rauffenstein is representative of the fact that commandants were sometimes disabled officers.  The camp guards did have a reputation for being humane so “Arthur” is typical.

                The diet of the prisoners was poor.  Not surprising because due to the Allied blockade the German people were suffering from malnutrition, too.  The prisoners did get to supplement their food with parcels from home, but it seems highly unlikely that Rosenthal’s family could have sent enough parcels to allow the meals the crew routinely eats in the camp.  Plus, the French prisoners were noted for receiving substantially less parcels than the British.

                The reference to Fort Douaumont seems accurate.  The fort did fall to the Germans in Feb., 1916 and then was recaptured by the French in Oct., 1916.  The movie’s time frame must be actually referring to the French recapturing part of the fort in May which they held only temporarily.

CRITIQUE:  “La Grande Illusion” is famous for its themes. Renoir was aiming at class divisions.  Specifically the gulf between the upper and lower classes.  Marechal, a mechanic before the war, and Boeldieu, a nobleman, represent the opposing classes.  Surprisingly, Renoir does not show the conflict between the classes.  These characters do not even have a rocky start before developing their friendship.  Even Rauffenstein treats the lower class inmates with respect, if disdain.  Renoir does not make the case that the two social classes can not live together, unless he is contrasting the egalitarian prison camp to peacetime society.  Boeldieu blends in easily with his prison mates and only rolls his eyes occasionally.  The Boldieu character is the least stereotyped in the movie.  Second least is Rauffenstein.  Stroheim had a reputation for playing villains so you do not expect him to be so humane.  Hell, he did not even mean to kill Boeldieu – he was aiming at his leg.  He is more stiffly (literally) upper class than the Frenchman, but only slightly so.  He has to work harder to tolerate the commoners, but he is not a pompous ass.  The subtheme is that the upper class sticks together.  Boeldieu and Rauffenstein feel a kinship that goes beyond national boundaries.  Renoir is making the case that in the future there will hopefully be no national boundaries and no class distinctions.  The movie makes this prediction.

                The movie has the technical hallmarks of a masterpiece.  The cinematography is not overblown, but shows the ability of a master.  He tends toward long takes with few cuts.  In other words, the opposite of a modern war movie.  When we are introduced to the first group of prisoners, they share a meal (food was important to Renoir) as the camera moves around the table.  There is a nice tracking shot during the theater rehearsal.  The camera pans over items in Raffenstein’s castle room to establish his Prussianness in the mise en scene.  The dialogue is nothing special.  You do not get the impression you are watching a play transferred to the cinema.  The music did not make an impression on me other than to notice there were large stretches where there was no background music to set the mood of the scene.

                The acting is a strength of the movie.  The cast is appealing, which is not surprising since all the characters are appealing.  Gabin has a lot of charisma – enough to get a German war widow (who he cannot communicate with) to fall in love with him in record time.  Fresnay is not as wooden as Boeldieu could have (should have?) been.  He does not twirl his mustache and his flute playing is transcendent.  Stroheim is good in playing against his usual villainy.  He had a lot of say in the character’s development.  Dallo is fine as Rosenthal and does not ham up the Jewishness of the character.  Rosenthal is an important cinematic figure given what was going on in Europe at the time.

I was not kidding about that foot bath!
CONCLUSION:   When I first watched “La Grande Illusion”, I wondered what the big deal was.  Then I watched the movie again with the commentary track by a cinema expert and I wonder less, but still I don’t get what the big deal is.  I understand what Renoir was trying to do, but I did not find it effective.  It is not genius to point out there was a class problem in Europe.  What is perplexing to me is why Renoir chose to make the upper class characters likeable and why the two classes get along so well in movie.  There is not a single negative character in this movie.    There is zero dysfunction.  How unrealistic!  Speaking of lack of reality, I know the depiction of the camps was accurate in the basics, but to portray them as better than being home with the wife was implausible.  I also found that the movie lacked suspense.  They dig a tunnel and then don’t get to use it. They escape from the castle and there are no shots fired and no pursuit. They hide out in a German farm house and no one comes banging on the door. I know it’s not “that kind of movie”, but that does not make it great entertainment (as many claim).  I suppose you could argue that it is a great movie, but I do not think it is a great war movie.  It is tremendously overrated and does not belong in the Top 10.  Discuss.


Acting =  A
Action =  4/10
Accuracy =  C
Realism =  C
Plot =  B

Overall =  C


  1. "Surprisingly, Renoir does not show the conflict between the classes." The barriers are hinted at on several occasions - generally when "the other(s)" are not around. But dramatizing conflicts would have been contrary to one of the main themes - the (fragile) fraternity of men born from the common experience of the Great War. And the same goes for the relations between the French and German characters (the widow included of course).

    When the movie was released, it seemed quite obvious to many people that this fraternity (between classes, between countries) had only been a short-lived dream; it took some serious courage to go against all odds and put all hopes on individuals vs politics - and some serious talent not to be naïve about it.

    The other point you may be missing is the importance of the theater. Much like in most of Renoir's European films, life is a stage... that's probably the other 'grande illusion'.

  2. Thanks for the comments. I see what you mean about the theater.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.