The Grand Illusion
(La Grande Illusion)

One of the most enduring genres of cinema since its inception in the late 19th century is the war film. Generally speaking, war films can be placed into one of two categories: the pro-war film and the anti-war film. In the case of the former, the positive societal preconceptions about war and those who wage it are presented: valor, honor, service, and sacrifice are the main themes of such films. In the case of the latter, the opposite is mainly true: the loss of innocence, man’s inhumanity to man, and the unpleasant fact of death are pervasive themes. On the face of it, it would be simple to label Jean Renoir’s 1937 film the Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion) as a war film since it takes place during the First World War (1914-1918). This view, however, neglects the fact that there is no actual warfare depicted in the film; indeed, almost all of the film’s “action” takes place in two German prisoner of war camps. The Grand Illusion is at its essence a study of the viability of Europe’s class system in the early part of the 20th century in a time of great change.

To understand the themes of the film, one must understand both its context and its main characters. The Grand Illusion was made in France in the mid-1930s at a time of crisis in European relations. Adolf Hitler, the bellicose Führer of Germany, believed in an encompassing pan-Germanism that called for the uniting of all ethnically or historically Germanic areas on the continent. Additionally, the state-sponsored ideology of Germany at that time also called for the subjugation of races the state deemed to be inferior and to settle old scores with the enemies of the Great War, particularly France. In this light, Renoir’s film is a plea for peace to a continent already headed toward war.

The main protagonist of the film is a junior French officer named Maréchal (Jean Gabin). Maréchal and his superior, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), are flying an aerial reconnaissance mission when their plane is shot down by the German Captain von Rauffenstein (poignantly portrayed by Erich von Stroheim). In a display that would seem bizarre to a modern audience, von Rauffenstein invites Maréchal and de Boeldieu to dine with him and his officers as soon as they are captured. In the course of their meal, it is revealed that von Rauffenstein had previously made the acquaintance of de Boeldieu’s cousin some years earlier before the war. The two French officers are then sent to a POW camp in Germany where they become involved in a plot conceived by a group of French officers already imprisoned there to escape. The plan eventually fails and many of them are relocated to a more secure camp administered by the now-gravely injured von Rauffenstein. Another escape plan is conceived, but it requires de Boeldieu to sacrifice his life so that Maréchal and another officer, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), may make a safe escape into the countryside and then into Switzerland. Along the way, the two men take refuge in the home of a German peasant woman who lost her husband in the war. She and Maréchal develop a strong attraction to one another, but neither understands the language of the other. Eventually, Rosenthal and Maréchal make it to Switzerland and, presumably, to safety in France.

In his attitude and appearance, Maréchal is the film’s everyman. He feels ill at ease when dining with de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, and never seems to fully respect or trust his superior officer until he gives up his life so that he and Rosenthal can escape from the POW camp. As the other officers talk about their lives back in “the real world,” Maréchal seems to stand alone; unmoved by fashion and skeptical of the luxurious standards of living to which men like de Boeldieu and Rosenthal are generally accustomed, his gruff proletarian exterior hides an internal sentimentality for life’s simple pleasures. He is additionally a plainly patriotic figure, although this seems to be born out of a sense of duty to his country rather than nationalism (which encompasses feelings of superiority). In this light, it is significant that the character with whom he develops the closest bond is the German peasant woman, who falls roughly into the same socio-economic class that he does. Despite this progressive, semi-socialist class solidarity, however, Maréchal is still possessed of certain 19th century French prejudices. Although he escapes from the camp with the injured Rosenthal (a newly-wealthy Jew of Polish and Danish extraction, representing the cosmopolitanism of European Jewry), they argue and Maréchal snaps at him with an anti-Semitic comment and leaves him sitting on a rock, sobbing. The two reconcile almost instantaneously and continue, although this does not stop Maréchal from jokingly referring to his friend as a “dirty Jew” at the end of the film. Similarly, Maréchal, Rosenthal, and de Boeldieu are lodged with an unnamed black French soldier, who spends his time painting a picture he calls Justice. When he shows this to Maréchal, he examines it for half of a second before returning to what he was doing before. Subsequently, the black man is neither seen nor heard from for the remainder of the film. In this way, Maréchal exhibits the racially exclusionary attitudes that were common in France (and indeed, much of the Western world) at the time, and Renoir is sure to indicate that the Frenchman is ignoring Justice.

Captains de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein represent the old order of the European aristocracy. The former is French and the latter is German, but they have a bond that transcends national boundaries: their class. Although they did not know one another before the war, they moved in some of the same circles and even pursued the same woman, and thus they feel a strong connection to one another. The two men often speak in English to one another in order to further distinguish themselves from their subordinates. Where they differ is in their understandings of their role in the new age. De Boeldieu acknowledges that he is an anachronism in the world of industrialization and egalitarianism while von Rauffenstein cannot conceive of such a thing. Despite the fact that de Boeldieu remains aloof toward Maréchal and Rosenthal, he nevertheless recognizes the role that men like them – the worker and the nouveau riche, respectively – will play in the coming century.

Von Rauffenstein, by contrast, holds the hoi polloi in contempt and mentions to de Boeldieu in one of their frequent intimate conversations that he does not consider them “real” officers in the same way he sees himself and his French comrade-captive. The severe injuries and constant need for assistance that von Rauffenstein exhibits in the second part of the film is symbolic of the decrepitude of his class. Eventually, von Rauffenstein is forced to shoot and mortally injure de Boeldieu as he creates the distraction that allows Maréchal and Rosenthal to leave the camp. Seated next to de Boeldieu’s deathbed, von Rauffenstein weeps as his friend-as-adversary says that being killed in war is a good way for men like them to die, but then adds that he feels sorry for von Rauffenstein because his survival means that he will have to find a place in a world that has no place for him. That von Rauffenstein was “forced” to kill the man who had become his friend is Renoir’s criticism of the cannibalism of the upper class and indicative of the reason why it cannot survive in a world where class unites more than it divides.

The key sociological issue in this film, of course, is class. In many ways, World War I was a turning point in the established order of things, but most significantly, its conclusion of the war also saw the downfall of four of the oldest and formerly most powerful monarchies on the planet: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. With the nobility emaciated and discredited by the war, it fell to the plebeian/proletarian classes to lead the nations of Europe. At the beginning of the film, Maréchal, de Boeldieu, and Rosenthal are all content to dine and work together as Frenchmen, but as time goes on, Maréchal and Rosenthal become suspicious of the aristocratic officer and his closeness with the enemy von Rauffenstein. It is only when the upper class acts for the benefit of the lower classes at its own expense does it gain credibility. Having metaphorically vanquished class distinction, the merchant (Rosenthal) and the mechanic (Maréchal) must put aside their prejudices and work together to survive: labor physically carries trade (Rosenthal is injured) while trade makes it possible for labor to thrive in its environment (Maréchal cannot speak German).

The Grand Illusion has been a recognizable influence on American films such as the Great Escape and Stalag 17, but only in narrow and superficial ways (specifically the depictions of prisoner of war camps and collaborationist suspicions therein). Most American films that portray class distinctions do so in a whimsical, eventually uplifting way, usually amounting to light satires of social status (any American adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) or the long-dormant genre known as the screwball comedy (Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night), although melodramas with lengths that approach monolithic status like Titanic or Spartacus are not unheard of. One reason that the Grand Illusion might have more of a bite to it than American films of that era that deal with roughly the same subtext is that class has rarely been seen as a problem in the United States since it is one of the tenets of the American civil religion that it is possible for anyone to start with nothing and, through hard work and shrewd decision-making, become wealthy. However, the contrast between Rosenthal on the one hand and de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein on the other demonstrates the European notion that there is a difference between class and wealth. European class iniquities extended far beyond the economic sphere into the social, the political, and the cultural.

While one may not agree with the semi-Marxist tone of the film (and I really don't), it is impossible to find fault with the manner in which Renoir presents it. From a technical and artistic standpoint, the Grand Illusion is virtually flawless and plainly elucidates the notion that a new order in Europe would rise after the end of the Great War. The film is an excellent depiction of the underside of the final war between gentlemen and shows how questions about prejudice, social justice, and class distinctions were framed in France before (and to some extent, after) the Second World War.

What, ultimately, is the grand illusion to which the title refers? The immediate answer would seem to be the idea that war is somehow a noble, honorable enterprise that lacks serious defects. From the subject of this essay, it could be inferred that the grand illusion is actually that distinctions between class and national boundaries are important determinants of a person’s value to a society. In the end, however, it is something more cynical and self-referential than both of these ideas: it is the notion that men could ever put aside their socio-economic differences to come together in peace and harmony and prevent a war as destructive as World War I from ever happening again. That, ultimately, is the grand illusion.

Yes, I did in fact just node my homework.

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