Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Target #258: The Grand Illusion (1937, Jean Renoir)

TSPDT placing: #25
Directed by: Jean Renoir

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

Re-reading my review of Stalag 17 (1951), I see that I referred to it as the template for every prisoner-of-war film that followed, including The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963). Once again, my relative inexperience with cinema seems to have caught me out; this film from Jean Renoir uses a similar formula, and predates it by almost fifteen years. Billy Wilder must certainly have seen The Grand Illusion (1937) – since it features Erich von Stroheim, whom he himself used in Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and Sunset Blvd. (1950) – and so Renoir's influence is present throughout. It's a WWI film, but we see no combat. Whereas most anti-war films illustrate their stance by pounding the all-too-familiar adage "war is hell" through images of death and destruction, Renoir's approach is considerably more understated. He highlight the futility of war through human interaction, both between the captured French prisoners and between the Germans who watch over them.

Just what is "the grand illusion?" Renoir derived his film title from "The Great Illusion," a 1909 non-fiction book by Norman Angell, in which the author argued for the impossibility of a large-scale European war for economic reasons. That WWI broke out five years later obviously proved detrimental to Angell's arguments, and Renoir deliberately plays on the irony of this knowledge. More significant, however, is that the book was released in a revised edition in 1933, the general argument modified to assert the utter utility of waging war, a theme that supports Renoir's stance: this would not be the "war that ends all wars." With WWII just around the corner, there's an bitter urgency to what the film has to say; just three years later, the director would be fleeing France. The topicality of the film's message proved especially successful overseas, and The Grand Illusion was unusually nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1939.

Of course, no Jean Renoir film is complete without some class-related social critique. Most striking in this regard is the relationship between Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Capt. von Rauffenstein (von Stroheim), from which, scandalously, it is implied that one's class forms a more binding camaraderie than that of nationality. The two men, both multilingual upper-class aristocrats who sense their social dominance is drawing to an end, seek solace in each other's company, and feel closer to one another than to the lower-class men of their own armies. However, there is hope in Renoir's vision of society. The age of aristocracy is coming to a close, and a new social order – in which all men are accepted as comrades – is at the cusp of existence. Boeldieu accepts this inevitability, and, despite the initial suspicion of his fellow Frenchmen, ultimately offers his life to allow two "lower-class" companions to escape. He betrays von Rauffenstein in favour of duty to his country, even if his death provides only temporary relief from the inescapable futility of war.

Currently my #2 film of 1937:
1) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand)
2) La Grande Illusion {The Grand Illusion} (Jean Renoir)
3) Shall We Dance (Mark Sandrich)
4) A Damsel in Distress (George Stevens)
5) The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey)


Jump_Raven said...

Been awhile since I saw this film, but I do remember enjoying it more than The Rules Of The Game (1939). I think I will have to see it again because the first time it just kind of washed over me. It felt good, but I think there is more to get out of it. By the way, if you haven't seen Renoir's postwar films made in France, see them. Especially The Golden Coach (1953).

ackatsis said...

Hiya Raven,
I've only seen two post-war French films from Renoir:
* French Cancan (1954)
* Elena and her Men (1956)

Full reviews can be found at:


I've got a complete (or very close to it) Renoir DVD box set, so I'm set for his next twenty films or so.
I don't want to hurry through his filmography, of course, but I'll check out "The Golden Coach" ASAP.

Jump_Raven said...

Make sure you watch the English version of The Golden Coach. According to Criterion, it's the version that Renoir himself preferred. On a side note, it's the best looking that you will ever see Anna Magnani.