Where Jean Gabin portrayed a doomed working class hero in Le jour se lève, in Grand Illusion (La grande illusion), he played perhaps the most hopeful symbol of the victorious proletariat that French Poetic Realism would ever come to offer. Grand Illusion uses his character as but one of several others showing the disintegration of the old world, and the rebuilding of a new one after the earth-shattering imbalance of World War I. It tells the story of humanity, divided vertically by borders and divided horizontally by social class. It tells the story of the war that shattered these distinctions: gone were the days of gentleman’s battles, glorious deaths, and the rules of the game. A new world order, one more unified in both suffering and success was being born. Out of this carnage and pain could come a new type of freedom, one both symbolic and practical, one that would elevate the lower class and destroy the arbitrary divisions that threatened humankind.
And yet, there is so much more than this story being told in Grand Illusion. There is so much more to this film than a portrayal of the collapsing fiction (the grand illusion) of a gentleman’s war and a nobleman’s glory. It is more than just a proletarian revolution. It is a story about the finest parts of humanity. Like so many other great war films, Grand Illusion takes time introducing us to the divisions, both horizontal (class) and vertical (nationality), that exist between us, only to demonstrate the infinite potential society has for solidarity, kindness, and compassion. The great irony of Grand Illusion is this: just as it celebrates the ascension of the working class hero, it also sadly eulogizes the demise of a more chivalrous world.
While films such as Apocalypse Now do well to show us the depths to which the darker side of humanity will plunge when surrounded by war, it is films like Grand Illusion that show us how suffering (even in times of war) has a profound tendency to bring out the best in people. But, again, this goodness goes unrewarded, and we are exposed to another grand illusion: that anything good can come from systematic killing.
Throughout the film, we are shown a changing world that is as much a reflection of the late 1930s, when the film was made, as it is a reflection of the turmoil of World War I that scarred earth’s surface fifteen or so years earlier. With World War II just around the corner, it was almost as prophetic as it was historical, and its applicability continues to this day.
An examination of most any serious movie critic’s list of the greatest films ever made would undeniably and reliably result with Grand Illusion, one of many masterpieces (two in particular) from Jean Renoir, the man who is practically universally considered as the finest director France ever produced. (And with names such as Méliès, Lumiére, Carné, Vigo, Bresson, Truffaut, Godard, and Cocteau, that is saying something). While I, as a matter of personal taste, prefer the works of Bresson, there is no denying Renoir’s greatness and influence. He was a man whose career spanned decades and nations, whose finest works of art included those standards of French Poetic Realism like The Crime of Monsieur Lange, The Rules of the Game, and La bête humaine, but also great English language color masterpieces like The Golden Coach and The River in the 1950s.
Renoir was the son of the world-famous Impressionist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Renoir the older was known for a delicate style, focused on catching civilized humanity in a sort of candid nature, freezing them in a color scheme hued with vibrancy and soft edges. In his works, there were little-to-no hard lines, rather, objects worked into each other. Nor were there dark shadows: the shadow cast by one object on another would dampen and alter the other’s coloration. It would not, however, make it a uniform blackness. From yards away, one could see the image in its entirety. But, the paintings were made more enjoyable under a close examination. The direction of the strokes, the translation of the colors, the way that the painting seemed like one continual wave of changing tonality because there were no hard lines stopping its movement, all of these factors seemed to guide the eye in a wave-like pattern all along the canvas.
In cinema, unlike painting, the camera is the eye. The medium itself reveals the hidden objects beyond the periphery. Though Auguste’s painting seemed like slices cut from a greater world, they were, in and of themselves, the entirety of their world. In film, the camera decides what you see, and invites you to take it in. Where Auguste’s painting guided your eyes in a sort of exploratory pattern across his finest works, Jean’s camera guides you around corners, tables, and conversations in an exploration of his world.
This is probably the main reason why Jean Renoir is considered the quintessential director of French Poetic Realism. What he inherited from his father was a keen sense of examination, not a scientific type of examination, complete with hard numbers and sweat-inducing analysis, but a sort of calm and insightful examination, the sort that brings life to a lazy river as you walk along it…not unlike the star-struck lovers in his masterful short film, Partie de campagne. This examination lent itself to the bicameral approach to Poetic Realism. While it communicated through poiesis, it was intently focused on unveiling the world it recorded. Since his films dealt with French society, this is where his realism came to light. He wanted to let you in to even the most subtle and, at times, mundane details.
Consider one of the more important visual scenes in the film. The scene itself seems rather inconsequential, but the way in which it is presented offers subtextual insight into the purpose of the picture as a whole. Lieutenant Rosenthal, himself acting as a symbol of the new world order (a man born of a formerly-subjected Jewish class who, coincidentally, is now the owner of his superior’s old estate, an estate lost in the war), receives his regular shipments of fine food from his now-significant family. Many times, he and his cell mates—including Gabin’s Maréchal and Pierre Fresnay’s Captain Boeldeiu—eat better than their captors. One meal, in particular, they sit around their fine array and commune over the spread. As I explained in my essay on the anthropology of foreign films, these moments of commensality, where characters eat together, are of significant humanistic import. It is clear during this scene that Renoir wants us to be more than observers. Like the eyes unconsciously moving over and across the delicate paintings of his father, Renoir’s camera slowly glides around the table, hovering every now and again, letting us see the people, the food, the room, and hear the dishes, the conversation, and the noises outside. Here, we are a part of this poetic reality, this anthropological phenomenon of commensality: the unity we experience in both suffering and victory.
This story is told through the perspective, mostly, of three characters, all introduced in the first couple minutes of the film.
First, there is Jean Gabin’s Maréchal. Already at this time in his career, Gabin was a famous actor. Working with the analogy I made to Humphrey Bogart in my review of Le jour se lève, Grand Illusion was Gabin’s Casablanca. His legacy not just as an all-star performer, but as the quintessential leading man of his era was cemented with this film. Like Bogart, he became the face of his nation’s version of film noir, the stoic-like anti-hero of a romanticized working class defined by subjugation and a fruitless battle against the establishment. Unlike Bogart, Gabin’s acting style was less verbal and more method-based. This was an extraordinary type of talent for 1930s cinema, particularly of the French variety. You will recall from my analysis of character acting, it wasn’t until the Strasburg and Adler schools of thought crept into New York before method acting became the standard play of the international movie industry. In an era where traditional theatrical stylings—bombasticism paired with stoicism—were the mainstay of cinematic acting, Gabin was cool and composed. “Stoic-like,” I said earlier, but not stoic. His approach was more aloof than anything, channeling that same sort of self-mastery that you got hints of later on in the works of Marlon Brando and James Dean. And, like Brando and Dean, that atmospheric approach to his work only made those sequences of rage or melancholy (Gabin’s characters were famous for sudden outbursts), all the more potent.
Maréchal is an officer in the French Armée de l’Air. He and his superior, Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), are shot down at the beginning of the film by a member of Captain von Rauffenstein’s (Erich con Stroheim) German brigade. From the outset, we are introduced to the film’s preeminent theme: the dynamic relationship between hospitality and war; the balance of humanity with violence. The Germans treat Maréchal and Boeldieu as if they were all best friends, and sit around yet another table to eat one with another. The scene, however, is marred when a token of a fallen Frenchman is brought into the room. The memorial of the death hurts Maréchal and Boeldieu visibly, but also causes the German soldiers to twinge. They even apologize to the two Frenchmen for subjecting them to that sad sight.
From there, Maréchal and Boeldieu are sent to an officer’s prison camp. This is not a prison movie with beatings, starvation, rape, intense escape sequences, death, and filth. No, we learn from the outset that we are dealing with a very different thing entirely. The officers in the camp—French, English, Russian—are treated, for the most part, with great autonomy and respect. Only when Maréchal leads an impromptu recitation of the “Marseilles” in an open act of defiance toward the Germans who are treating them so well does he land a severe punishment: weeks in solitary confinement.
That sequence inspired a certain little-known Hollywood film five years later, called Casablanca, to include a rousing rendition of the French national anthem, also sung in defiance of present German authority. This was not the only scene imitated in later cinema. In John Sturges’ 1963 prison drama, The Great Escape, we see the prisoners hiding dirt from their tunnel in their pants, only to shake it out on the yard outside during exercise time. The cunning French officers in Grand Illusion did this first.
The scene of Maréchal in solitary is a short but powerful one. There is an emotional sequence where a German guard, concerned with Maréchal’s state, gifts him his harmonica. There is something special about music, it keeps you real company when you are alone and in dark places. Loneliness is something that all of the prisoners cope with in this film. In one scene, a man dresses in drag in preparation for a comedy skit the prisoners put together. That is enough for all the men to stare for a long, drawn-out, even awkward pause. “It’s funny, right?” the man says uncomfortably. No one says a word, clearly they are to distracted with thoughts of women, a far-off idea in this war-torn world. This loneliness however, is only further exacerbated and intensified in those scenes with Maréchal in solitary confinement. This act of kindness, again, from a German, in giving away his harmonica is one of the more subtle thematic inclusions in the story.
From camp to camp Maréchal and his companions (particularly Boeldieu) are moved. At each one, the Germans seem to believe that if the prisoners promise not to escape, they won’t escape. The prisoners, however, try to anyway, only because that’s what prisoners do. Even in deception, there is this idea of trying to live in accordance with a moral code.
The last prison camp is the most central to the story. This camp is a giant castle-fortress. The camera work is extraordinary in the sequences in the castle. Renoir takes you slowly around corners, he weaves around companies of people, up and down, following their varying heights with smoothness, so that you don’t even realize the camera is moving. It is in that castle where they meet von Stroheim’s character again, only now he is relegated to a bulky neck-brace, his body covered in burns and built by shattered bones. The war has not been kind to Captain von Rauffenstein. He and Boeldeiu have a special connection, one of nobility. These are the last remnants of the old world. Their story plays out in direct antithesis to the story of Maréchal, who later is able to escape.
The outdoor sequences featuring Maréchal and Rosenthal on the run are beautifully panning vista shots, gorgeous and bright along the mountain ridges and into the sky above, but earthy and dirty and cold at ground level. The images are fraught with yearning; a long walk upward and forward to some unreachable place: peace. This is one of the great illusions, says Maréchal to Rosenthal on this hike into neutral Switzerland, that peace could ever come.
That may be true, peace may never come, at least not permanently. But, just as war is inevitable, so, it seems, is peace. They take their turns, they impeded on one another, and perhaps more frequently than all, they exist simultaneously. No better example of this is shown in the film than when Maréchal and Rosenthal sneak into what they believe is an empty barn in the Alps, only to be taken in and cared for by a kind German widow named Elsa and her daughter. Her husband has died in the war, and, like the prisoners themselves, just doesn’t want to be lonely anymore. I love those simple final scenes in the mountains. A sweet but short love story is not forced; it rather naturally blooms, like a winter rose—a symbol of life among so many more of death. Change comes, but there is something profoundly permanent about other human fixtures such as family and love. One of my favorite sequences in the whole film is when Maréchal, Rosenthal, and the widow prepare the Christmas Eve nativity for Lotte, Elsa’s daughter.
Elsa is played by Dita Parlo, whom we have met before in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante. While no film ever succeeded in majestifying her face and acting ability quite so well as L’Atalante, Jean Renoir did not do half bad in Grand Illusion himself. She is fantastic in her short role, and lends a lifelike quality to the film that seems to wrap up all the thematic loose-ends beautifully. Where Rauffenstein and Boeldieu represent the falling bourgeois, she represents the burgeoning agrarian. Where Maréchal also represents, in his own way, the rising lower class, she only further magnifies the virtue of the “commoner,” who, as Boeldieu so elegantly puts it, does not find such virtue in a wartime death. Perhaps more than anything, she represents peace; not so much because death doesn’t follow her—it certainly does, she has lost her husband and three brothers in the war—but because she is such a grantor of life, both literally and figuratively. This, I think, is why the love story does not seem forced: this film needed a woman in it.
Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, said that the “grand illusion” is “the notion that the upper classes somehow stand above war.” Others have put serious stock in one of the film’s final dialogues between Maréchal and Rosenthal, when they say that it’s all an illusion that this war will end all future wars. Renoir himself, said this about the film’s preeminent theme:
“[La Grande Illusion is] a story about human relationships. I am confident that such a question is so important today that if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say ‘goodbye’ to our beautiful world.”
I think that the “grand illusion” is something far more complex that all that, especially after reading Renoir’s take on it all. Like I explained at the outset of this review, this film, though rife with multiple thematic undercurrents, is predominantly focused on two things: first, the need for the rise of the lower class (and the subsequent humbling of the upper class) in the face of fascism, and second, the general belief in humanity’s compassion to one another. One theme, political. The other, social, spiritual, anthropological. What so many don’t realize is that these two things, at least as far as they are shown in the film are so ironically interconnected. The code of integrity, keeping your word, respecting others around you, the code of the “civilized war”, if you will dies with the upper class. In the disintegration of the gentleman’s code comes the most brutal of wars, the one which most handily divides and destroys. At movie’s end, the characters find solace only in those like them, the separation is now complete. The grand illusion it seems, is the profound irony of war, change, and equality; that it doesn’t matter who you are, you can’t escape hardship.
In this world full of illusions, the illusion of the effective war, the illusion of the omnipotent gentility, the illusion of the virtuous agrarian, or the illusion that some day humanity can obtain a permanent peace, there is one consistent thread: there will always be acts of kindness. The world, when seen from 30,000 feet, is a macrocosm of deceit, violence, and perpetual change. But, zoom in on any single member of that world, just as you would zoom in on any specific stroke in an Auguste Renoir painting, and you will see something profoundly unique to the bigger picture. At that microcosmic level, you will always find relationships, even those that that cross those boundaries that divide us.
In that regard, maybe the grand illusion is not a negative one at all.
That war and the winds of time destroy the heart of man and alleviate from him any ounce of goodness he once had…perhaps that’s the grandest illusion of them all.