*** Warning ‘ere be spoilers ***
Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion was first released in 1937 as storm clouds were once again gathering over Europe. Rightly considered to be a cinematic masterpiece, La Grande Illusion is a powerful and provoking look at the senselessness of war. The title itself comes from a book called The Great Illusion by British Economist Norman Angell who argued that war is in itself a futile practice because of the common economic interests of the European nations. The destructive and costly nature of wars serves no useful purpose and its benefits are merely an illusion.
The film focuses on aristocratic French officers Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and working class Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin) who get shot down during an aerial reconnaissance mission by a German officer Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim). Von Rauffenstein, himself of aristocratic stock, sends out a subordinate to find out if the French soldiers are officers and if so, to invite them to dine with the German officers before they are sent on. During this initial meeting von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu find they have a lot in common, mix in similar circles and even share several acquaintances.
The two Frenchmen are then moved on to a POW camp where they befriend a band of assorted fellow French soldiers who involve the pair in their plan to tunnel out. Unfortunately, as the group are all set to break out, the Germans announce that all the officers are being moved on to new camps. Around a year later, de Boeldieu and Marechal find themselves at Wintersborn, a mountain fort run by von Rauffenstein who himself has been badly injured in combat. As appears to be the custom of the time, Von Rauffenstein is a compassionate officer who treats his captives well. Nonetheless, upon their arrival he assures the Frenchmen that Wintersborn is escape proof and advises them to not make any escape attempts. The two aristocratic officers form a close friendship and lament the decline of the old order and an end to gentlemanly combat.
At Wintersborn, the two Frenchmen are also reunited with an old friend from their original camp called Rosenthal, a Jewish soldier from a wealthy French banking family. Between them, the three soldiers hatch a plan of escape which sees De Boeldieu acts as a diversion while his two friends make their getaway. Von Rauffenstein catches up to De Boeldieu and implores him to turn himself in. When de Boeldieu refuses, von Rauffenstein reluctantly shoots him, hitting him in the stomach.
As de Boeldieu lies dying from his wounds, von Rauffenstein apologies for having to shoot him, but the Frenchman assures him he would have done the same. Meanwhile, Marechal and Rosenthal successfully escape and after trudging through the wild countryside for some time, get taken in by a German widow who herself has lost her husband and brothers to the war.
Released as it was in 1937, Renoir was clearly using the events of World War 1 as a prism for looking at the horrific march of fascism and the spectre of war now once again hanging over Europe. Renoir’s film seeks to emphasise a common humanity which transcends all notions of race and nationality. Throughout the film the cordial relationships between captors and prisoners as well as soliders from wildly varying social strata are telling. He sought to show war as a common experience where suffering and loss is experienced in equal measure on both sides. A pivotal moment which showcases Renoir’s assertion that all people share a common bond and suffers equally from the horrors of war comes when the German widow takes in the two escaped French soldiers and doesn’t give them up when she has the chance. She then mournfully shows the soldiers a picture of her deceased family members all in their regimental dress and recites to them the battles in which they died, ironically pointing out that these battles were the German’s “greatest victories”.
La Grande Illusion also deals with the issue of class and the changing face of European politics. Well-to-do officers von Rauffenstien and de Boeldieu recognise that they are now a dying breed. Their ethical code of conduct and sense of duty is being phased out and the horrors of the trenches and the brutality of the First World War means that such notions of gentlemanly combat is soon to be confined to history.
The two aristocrats share many common bonds and ultimately it is their commitment to duty which leads to one of the most poignant moments of the film. After Von Rauffenstein has grudgingly shot de Boeldieu, the Frenchman lies on his death bed, and says to a tearful von Rauffensteinn “For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and I–it’s a good way out.” He recognises that the times are-a-changing and knows there’s no place for his type in the new world.
Unsurprisingly, the message of international harmony and the negative view of war did not stand well with the Nazi’s. Josef Goebbels even christened the film “Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1” and ordered the original negative to be seized. The history of the negative itself is then quite an eventful one. Long presumed destroyed in an allied air raid in 1942, it was actually shipped back to Berlin by a Nazi officer and film archivist called Frank Hansel. Prints of the film were discovered in the 50’s and 60’s but these were of poor quality and restoration work was thus tricky. After the war ended the Nazi film archive resided in the Russian zone of Berlin and thus it was transferred back to Russia. Then, in the 1960s, the negative was transferred back to Toulouse in a swap deal with the Russian archives, but seen as the negative was long since considered destroyed, it went unnoticed for nearly three decades. When it was finally rediscovered in the early 90s it was painstakingly restored and re-released to rave reviews. The Blu-Ray release sees La Grande Illusion looking as sharp and crisp as it ever has and it really does Renoir’s original vision justice.
The enduring legacy of La Grande Illusion can also be measured in the films it has influenced. A scene where the French prisoners sing an impromptu rendition of La Marseillies was of course utilised by Michael Curtiz in Casablanca, while many of the details of the tunnel escape, such as the distribution of excess earth in the prison gardens, was used to great effect in The Great Escape.
At 75 years old, the powerful message of common humanity and the futility of war has lost none of its significance and Renoir’s masterpiece remains as powerful and inspirational as ever.
La Grande Illusion is release on blu-ray 23rd April 2012.
Director: Jean Renoir
Stars: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay
Runtime: 114 min