Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion is not only the greatest of all prison escape movies but it is regarded by critics and film historians as one of the greatest films in the world. Apart from its other extraordinary achievements Grand Illusion influenced three later movie sequences that became classics of their own. The digging of the escape tunnel in The Great Escape, the singing of the Marseilles to enrage the Germans in Casablanca, and going out to the garden to deposit the dirt from the tunnel by shaking their pants in The Shawshank Redemption. Grand Illusion earned Jean Renoir enormous acclaim in the United States, exciting the admiration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who ran the film for 26 weeks in New York after its opening in September 1938, and it became the first foreign language film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Orson Welles named Grand Illusion as one of the movies "he would take with him on the ark." It’s a war film that has no war scenes and yet it's ideas are much richer and more humane than most war films. It's not a movie about a prison escape, it's a meditation on the collapse of the old order of European civilization. Critic Roger Ebert states, "Perhaps that was always a sentimental upper-class illusion, the notion that gentlemen on both sides of the lines subscribed to the same code of behavior. Whatever it was, it died in the trenches of World War I."
“Grand 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. Perhaps you will be surprised by certain scenes in the picture showing French prisoners, also English prisoners or Belgium or Russian getting along pretty well with the Germans. We must not forget that the story takes place in 1914. And in 1914 there was no Hitler...in 1914 the Nazis haven’t spoiled yet the spirit of the world and who almost succeeded in making people forget that the Germans are also human beings. May as I say to a certain extent; the war of 1914 was almost a war...of gentlemen...”
During World War I an aviator; working-class Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is called in to see his superior and is asked to go with aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu and embark on a flight to examine a site of a blurred spot on a photo from an earlier air reconnaissance mission. Renoir does not show it but they are later shot down by a German aviator and aristocrat von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). Von Rauffenstein, upon returning to base, sends a subordinate to find out if the aviators are officers and, if so, to invite them to lunch; out of respect. (According to Renoir's memoirs, von Stroheim, despite being born in Vienna, Austria did not speak much German, and struggled with learning the language along with his lines in between filming scenes.)
During the meal, von Rauffenstein shakes de Boeldieu's hand but can’t shake Maréchal’s because his arm was injured when shot down. Von Rauffenstein says "my apologies" and when talking to de Boeldieu he discovers they have mutual acquaintances and have similar backgrounds within the upper classes that crosses national boundaries. De Boeldieu and Maréchal are then taken to a prisoner-of-war camp, where they are told by the guards, "Officers will be treated with the consideration due to their rank. However, you are reminded that you are subject to German Law."
When entering the prison they meet a colorful group of fellow French prisoners including a teacher, an actor and a Jewish banker named Rosenthal who purchased the Chateau that de Boieldieu’s family no long can afford. All the prisoners come from different social classes and backgrounds and when Maréchal meets the actor from the stage Maréchal tell him, "Theaters to deep for me. I prefer Bicycling." One day at the prison camp one of the prisoners tells Maréchal him and the rest of the groups plans on escape. He says, "you see, after dark...we're digging a tunnel." Maréchal says when they finally finish digging through the war will be over by then, saying "like Monty Cristo...what a laugh!"
After a roll call the men all get ready to dig by covering the windows and removing the floor boards. They have an alarm that is a can on a string. The actor says before going under, "If I start to suffocate, I yank on the string...the can falls, the boys pull me out by my feet!" He then climbs underneath the floorboards into the hole and starts to continue the dig. Suddenly the group hear a noise outside so they have the schoolteacher go out and check on whats going on. When he comes back to tell them someone else tried escaping and was shot down; everyone is distracted and doesn't realize the actor pulled the alarm while he was underground digging.
They all quickly pull him up with Maréchal not being able to help because of his injured arm. They lay the actor out on the bed and a comedic moment breaks the tension when they have him drink some liquor. The actor then awakens appearing to be alright and then takes the bottle away saying, "Here's mud in your eye...don't drop the bottle."
The next morning they all read in the German papers on how the Germans are supposedly winning the war and exaggerating the stories. Maréchal tells everyone the French papers do the same thing. They then go in the garden to deposit the dirt they got from the tunnel shaking it out through their pants.
Later in the prison the group gets a package of French clothes and while going through them Maréchal tells the convicts that woman outside now have skirts to their knees and cut their hair short. One convict says, "When we're not around...women act foolish." In one of the classic scenes of the film, one of the prisoners puts on a ladies outfit and there is complete silence in the room. Renoir then pans the camera past all the guards and prisoners who are dumbfounded and astonished at seeing an image of a woman who they all probably haven't seen in years.
Later in their cells de Boeldieu looks outside and seems to see new young German soldiers being trained in the yard. De Boeldieu sarcastically says "Out there children play soldier...in here soldiers play like children." There's an interesting scene when Maréchal and a few other prisoners are saying anti-Semitism remarks to Rosenthal because of him being a wealthy Jew; but he playfully comes back at them with his own insults.
When the prisoners finally hear the horrible news that Fort Duaumont was taken in the battle of Verdun by the Germans, they watch the German's celebrating in the courtyard; so Maréchal has an idea to get back at them. The prisoners decide to throw a stage vaudeville-type performance and during the performance, word arrives that the French have recaptured the fort. Maréchal interrupts the show shouting "We've retaken Douaumont! It's in the German papers!," and the French prisoners spontaneously burst into song singing "La Marseillaise" which is a scene that influenced Michael Curtiz's Casablanca.
As a result of the disruption, Maréchal is placed in solitary confinement, where he suffers badly from lack of human contact, hunger and shouting in despair, "I can't take it anymore. I want to see some light! It stinks of shit in here! And I want to hear a voice!" A German officer calms him down by giving him a harmonica to play. When the guard leaves another guard asks him what he's screaming about. The guard calmly replies, "the wars too long."
With the tunnel nearly completed everyone is planning to escape that very night; wishing Maréchal could join them. Luckily Maréchal is released out of solitary confinement that very day. However, that evening a German guard comes in and announces to everyone that they are all being transferred to other camps. While leaving and seeing new prisoners coming in Maréchal tries to tell the new prisoners about the tunnel in the floor but the prisoners are British and because of the language barrier; they don't understand what Maréchal is trying to tell them.
De Boeldieu and Maréchal are moved together from camp to camp, finally arriving in Wintersborn, a mountain fortress prison commanded by Von Rauffenstein, who in an amazing shot is not introduced on-screen right away. You first see his superior talking to him and the camera pans back to show Von Rauffenstein's glove, his monocle and a neck brace. Von Rauffenstein has been so badly injured in battle that he has been promoted, but reassigned, much to his regret. When Von Rauffenstein recognizes de Boeldieu and Maréchal he confronts them. "Delighted to see you again, Boeldieu" he says and shakes de Boeldieu's hand. "But I'm sorry to see you here."
He then looks over their report in his office. "Captain de Boeldieu, four escape attempts, through a heating duct in a garbage bin, then the sewers, in a laundry basket." Boeldieu says, "One must lower oneself, at times." Rauffenstein says to Maréchal, "five attempts at escape; disguised as a chimney sweeper, disguised as a german soldier, disguised as a women. Amusing...very amusing." Maréchal responds, "But less so when an NCO tried to pick me up. That I didn't like!" Then Rauffenstein says, "gentlemen, I respect your patriotism and courage. But the situation is completely different here. No one escapes from this fortress." He gladly invites the two for a tour of the prison and even lets them share a cell with their fellow prisoner, Rosenthal from the original camp.
Since Rosenthal is a wealthy French Jew, he generously shares the food parcels he receives to them. Maréchal and Boeldieu notices Rosenthal is making a rope because he is planning an escape. Suddenly the German guards are doing cell searches so Boeldieu grabs it and hides it by hanging it outside of the window. When the guards do a search in their room Von Rauffenstein walks in and asks Boeldieu, "Give me your word that you've nothing in here against regulations." Boeldieu says "You have my word."
In one of the best scenes of the film Rauffenstein invites de Boeldieu to have a friendly discussion in his office. When there, Von Rauffenstein tells him his spine was fractured in two places and his hand was badly burned in the war; and now has two silver plates in his head and kneecap. Boeldieu's curious on why he was invited up to be with him.
"Why did you make an exception of me by inviting me here?"
"Because your name is Boeldieu career officer in the French Army. And I am Rauffenstein, career officer in the German Imperial Army."
"But my comrades are officers, as well."
"A Marechal and Rosenthal...officers?
"There fine soldiers."
"Charming legacy of the French Revolution."
"Neither you nor I can stop the march of time."
"Boeldieu, I don't know who will win this war, but whatever the outcome it will mean the end of the Rauffensteins and the Boeldieus."
Boeldieu admires the geranium plant that Rauffenstein tends in his office and Rauffenstein tells him its the only flower in the fortress.
One day the prisoners receive a large crate from Czarina and thinking it might be food they instead get books. One of the Russian prisoners is angry and sets the books on fire with a German soldier ironically yelling, "You have no right to burn books!" De Boeldieu and Maréchal realize with all this hysteria that if they planned it they could of had time to escape.
De Boeldieu comes up with an idea, after carefully observing how the German guards respond to an emergency; that de Boeldieu will volunteer to distract the guards for the few minutes needed for Maréchal and Rosenthal to escape. After a commotion staged by the prisoners by playing flutes and making noise, the guards are ordered to assemble all the prisoners in the fortress courtyard. Before leaving, Maréchal says to Boeldieu, "well...goodbye", knowing the sacrifice Boeldieu is making for him and Rosenthal.
During the roll call, it is discovered that de Boeldieu is missing. He suddenly makes his presence known high up in the fortress walls, drawing the German guards away in pursuit while playing a flute. While the guards are all distracted in trying to catch De Boeldieu; Maréchal and Rosenthal take the opportunity to lower themselves from a window by the homemade rope and flee the castle walls. Von Rauffenstein has the guards stop shooting at de Boeldieu and pleads with his fellow aristocrat to give himself up. "Boeldieu! I beg you! Come down! (English) Have you really gone insane? You understand that if you do not obey my order now, I'll have to shoot. I dread to do that. I beg you...man to man. Come down."
Boeldieu says, "Its damn nice of you Rauffenstein, but it's impossible." Von Rauffenstein has no other choice and shoots him in the stomach. Then Von Rauffenstein hears that Marechal and Rosenthal have escaped; and now Von Rauffenstein knows why Von Boeldieu did what he did. In the best scene of the film; Von Rauffenstein is beside de Boeldieu during his final moments; while Von Rauffenstein feels bad for shooting his friend.
"I would have done the same. French or German, duty is duty."
"Are you in pain?"
"I didn't think a bullet in the stomach hurt so much."
"I aimed at your legs."
"It was 500 feet, with poor visibility. Besides I was running."
"Please no excuses, I was clumsy."
"I'm not the one that should be pitied. For me it will all be over...soon. But you'll have to carry on.
"Carry on a futile existence."
"For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and me...it's a good way out."
Von Rauffenstein then closes von Boeldieu's eyes after he dies. The camera slowly pans to the window as it's snowing outside as Von Rauffenstein tenderly cuts a branch from his geranium plant off, as a symbol of a now dead branch in his life.
Maréchal and Rosenthal journey across the German countryside, trying to get to nearby Switzerland. Rosenthal injures his foot, slowing Maréchal down. They quarrel with Marechal saying how he could never stomach Jews and starts to leave him. But eventually Maréchal returns to help his comrade.
They take refuge in the shed of a German farm woman named Elsa who has a daughter named Lotte, but lost her husband at Verdun, along with three brothers, at battles which, with quiet irony, she describes as "our greatest victories." She generously takes them in, and doesn't betray them to a passing German army patrol.
Months pass and you can see Maréchal and Elsa have gotten much closer, each teaching each other French and German. They all three spend Christmas together like a family. That night after her daughter Lotte goes to bed Elsa says to Maréchal and Rosenthal, "I don't know how to thank you." Maréchal begins to fall in love with her and that night there is a great shot of Maréchal getting ready to go to bed when he sees Elsa in the living room all alone. He walks out and holds her.
That next morning Rosenthal and Maréchal have to leave but Maréchal doesn't have the heart to tell her. Elsa starts to cry saying, "I've been alone too long. I've waited so long. If you knew how happy I've been to hear your footsteps around the house." Maréchal tells her (still struggling with his German) "Elsa...listen when war is over and me not dead...understand? I...come back here...no? And you...come with me...to France. With Lotte...no?" Maréchal and Rosenthal then leave and when Rosenthal asks if Maréchal will look back one last time; Maréchal says, "If I do, I might never leave..."
At the climax of the film a German patrol sights the two fugitives crossing a snow-covered valley in the distance. The soldiers fire a few rounds, but then an officer orders them to cease fire, realizing the two have crossed into Switzerland; on safegrounds. We last see Maréchal and Rosenthal from a distance, trudging through deep snow; now free with their future uncertain.
Grand Illusion is the masterpiece that earned Jean Renoir enormous acclaim in the United States, exciting the admiration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and running for 26 weeks in New York after its opening in September 1938. Banned in Italy by Mussolini, and in Germany by Goebbels (naturally), it vanished during the war, only to be recovered in 1946 in a truncated state, finally reconstructed by Renoir during the late 1950s.
Despite these tribulations, Grand Illusion has retained the look, sound, and feel of a classic. Made just three years before World War II, it gazes back to a different era, and to a war, in the words of the director, “based on fair play, a war without atom bombs or torture.” Hitler had not appeared. “Nor,” says Renoir, “had the Nazis, who almost succeeded in making people forget that the Germans are also human beings.”
Using the POW camp as a microcosm, Renoir studies the interplay of a motley group of French officers, forced to live together under the eyes of their German captors. Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is the no-nonsense Breton, ill-educated but infinitely dependable. Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) comes from the aristocracy, and carries his white gloves and monocled disdain from one camp to another. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) is of wealthy Jewish ancestry and dispels the prejudice of the men around him through generosity of mind and means. And crossing their path most memorably is the archetypal Teutonic officer, Captain von Rauffenstein, played by Hollywood’s “Man You Love to Hate,” Erich von Stroheim.
During World War I, while the future director was flying reconnaissance missions, a certain Major Pinsard saved Renoir’s life through some fearless attacks on enemy fighters. Pinsard was shot down seven times, and on every occasion contrived to land safely. Years later, while filming Toni in southern France, Renoir was irritated by the incessant din of planes using a nearby aerodrome. The instigator of the noise turned out to be none other than Pinsard. From his reminiscences, Renoir devised the story of Grand Illusion.
Grand Illusion escapes the confines of the war movie genre. Scarcely a gun is fired in anger. The trenches are nowhere in sight. Yet through some alchemy, Renoir imbues the film with his passionate belief in man’s humanity to man. In no other work, indeed, does Renoir give such obvious validity to his famous credo about the world being divided socially in horizontal, not vertical, terms. “If a French farmer found himself dining with a French financier,” he wrote, “those two Frenchman would have nothing to say to each other. But if a French farmer meets a Chinese farmer they will find any amount to talk about.” The accident of war brings out the fundamentally decent nature of people who in peacetime would be unbending strangers to one another. Von Rauffenstein invites the French officers he has just shot down to join him for lunch. Rosenthal, who suffers some initial needling about his Jewishness, lays out the contents of his sumptuous food parcel for the benefit of those who regard him so condescendingly. Elsa, the German widow, gives food and shelter to the fugitives whose countrymen have killed her husband at Verdun.
In Grand Illusion, everyone learns to give and take, without betraying his essential personality, without denying differences of language and education. The prisoners sustain themselves with small delusions: digging a tunnel by night; dressing up in drag to remind themselves of the womanhood that has no place in prison life; celebrating the smallest and most fleeting of victories as news filters in from the front; or, most pathetic of all, von Rauffenstein’s careful tending of a geranium in his fortress bedroom.
Grand Illusionis the ideal film to watch on DVD because Renoir’s technique is so self-effacing that in a theater its subtle nuances are likely to pass by the viewer. The camera lingers and shifts with these men in their cramped surroundings. Renoir allows the details to emerge by not surrendering to the snap-crackle-pop style of editing associated with war films. As he himself has written, during the meal in the first POW camp, “the camera moves over the details of the scene without ceasing to link up the whole until the sequence is ended.” This reinforces the idea of people forming a cohesive group, rather than performing life’s petty rituals in isolation. For such visual fluency, Renoir praised his nephew, Claude (the camera operator), for being “as supple as an eel.”
The superb acting in Grand Illusion stems from several styles and traditions. Gabin as Maréchal combines—as Yves Montand and Gerard Depardieu have done since—a rasping proletarian aggression with a surprising restraint and delicacy of emotion. Fresnay brings to the movie the polish and suave timing he had acquired from his work with the Comédie Française. Julien Carette, as the cheerful, vulgar actor, upstages everyone whenever he’s in sight. And towering over the film with the impassioned arrogance of some mighty statue is von Stroheim as the commandant.
French critic André Bazin wrote of Renoir that “he has inherited from the literary and pictorial sensibility of his father’s era a profound, sensual and moving sense of reality.” A film like Grand Illusion illustrates this to perfection.
According to Renoir's memoirs, von Stroheim, despite being born in Vienna, Austria (then the Austro-Hungarian Empire) did not speak much German, and struggled with learning the language along with his lines in between filming scenes. The exteriors of "Wintersborn" were filmed at the Haut Koenigsbourg Castle in Alsace. Other exteriors were filmed at the artillery barracks at Colmar (built by Wilhelm II) and at Neuf-Brisach on the Upper Rhine.
What makes Grand Illusion a unique war film is that it examines the relationships between the social classes in Europe at that time. De Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein are both aristocrats who are cosmopolitan men. They are very educated in several different languages and culture and have a strong idealistic devotion to the rituals of their position which makes them relate to one another; even though they are enemies fighting for their own political and loyal beliefs. They share similar social experiences: dining at Maxim's in Paris, courting dalliances with the same woman, and even know of each other through acquaintances. This is one of the most touching films that shows the understanding, respect and humanity between the enemies of war. Von Rauffenstein looks as men that are not in his class as not respectable gentlemen but de Boeldieu over time changes his viewpoints when he becomes prisoner's beside these men. He eventually understands they are strong respectable gentlemen as well and because of that sacrifices himself to save Maréchal and Rosenthal's lives in helping them to escape.
There are some fascinating scenes where Von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu change their language during conversation to French and German when heavily formal and escape to English in moments of personal and intimate conversations to comments they don't want their lower class counterparts to overhear. Renoir's message in the film is the decline of the aristocracy that will eventually be replaced by a new social order led by men who were not born to privilege. Both von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu view their military service as a duty, and see the war as having a purpose; as such, Renoir depicts them as tragic figures whose world is disappearing and yet who are trapped in a code of life, experiences and background that is quickly becoming meaningless and obsolete. He emphasizes that their class is no longer an essential component to their respective nation's politics.
Von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu are both aware that their time is past, but their reaction to this reality diverges: de Boeldieu accepts the fate of the aristocracy as a positive improvement, but von Rauffenstein does not, lamenting what he sarcastically calls the "charming legacy of the French Revolution". Renoir contrasts the aristocrats with characters of the lower class with Maréchal who is a simple mechanic from Paris, then there's the actor and the teacher. The lower class characters have little in common with each other; they have different interests and are not worldly in their views or education. Nonetheless, they have a kinship too, through common sentiment and experience.
Renoir's message is made clear when the aristocratic de Boeldieu sacrifices himself by distracting the prison guards by dancing around, singing, and smoking his cigarette, to allow Maréchal and Rosenthal, members of the lower class, to escape. Reluctantly and strictly out of duty, von Rauffenstein is forced to shoot de Boeldieu, an act that de Boeldieu admits he would have been compelled to do were the circumstances reversed. However, in accepting his inevitable death, de Boeldieu takes comfort in the idea that "For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and me, it's a good way out", and states that he has pity for von Rauffenstein who will struggle to find a purpose in the new social order of the world where his traditions, experiences, and background are obsolete. The film's critique of the romantic idealization of duty is comparable to that in the earlier film All Quiet on the Western Front 1930, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque.
Grande Illusion is a war film without any depiction of battle. Instead, the prisoner of war camp setting is used as a space in which soldiers of many nations have a common experience. Renoir portrays war as a futile exercise. For instance, Elsa, the German widow, shows photos to Maréchal and Rosenthal of her husband and her brothers who were killed, respectively, at the battles of Verdun, Liège, Charleroi, and Tannenberg. Ironically the last three of these battles were amongst Germany's most celebrated victories in World War I. Through this device, Renoir refutes the notion that one common man's bravery, honor, or duty can make an impact on a great event. This undermines the idealistic intention of Maréchal and Rosenthal to return to the front, so that by returning to the fight they can help end this war. Grande Illusion, director Jean Renoir uses the First World War as a lens through which to examine Europe as it faces the rising spectre of fascism (especially in Nazi Germany) and the impending approach of the Second World War (1939–1945). Renoir's critique of contemporary politics and ideology celebrates the universal humanity that transcends national and racial boundaries and radical nationalism, suggesting that mankind's common experiences should prevail above political division, and its extension: war.The burning of the books is another forshadowing of the Nazi Party during the next World War. After the film won a prize at the Venice Film Festival for "Best Artistic Ensemble" in 1937, the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels declared La Grande Illusion "Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1" and ordered the prints to be confiscated and destroyed. Fearing negative influence on the fighting morale, French authorities banned the film in 1940 as long as the war should last. This ban was renewed by the German Propaganda-Abteilung in October of the same year. When the German Army marched into France in 1940 during World War II, the Nazis seized the prints and negative of the film, chiefly because of its anti-war message, and what were perceived as ideological criticisms pointed towards Germany on the eve of the Second World War. Renoir briefly touches on the question of antisemitism through the character of Rosenthal, a son from a Jewish banking family (a parallel to the Rothschild banking family of France). It is thought that Renoir created this character to counter the rising anti-Jewish campaign enacted by Adolf Hitler's government in Nazi Germany. The character of Rosenthal has to deal with the insults of anti-Semitism by several of his companions. Rosenthal is shown as a character of humanity across class lines and even though he may be financially wealthy, he shares his food parcels with everyone so that he and his fellow prisoners are well fed unlike their German captors. Maréchal's character shows some racism towards him during the film; but in the end comes to care about him as good friends.There is also a black French officer among the prisoners at Wintersborn who appears to be ignored by the other prisoners, and not accepted as an equal by them. When he speaks to them he is not responded to. For instance, when he shows his artwork, he is shrugged off. Renoir seeks to refute the notion that war accomplishes anything, or that it can be used as a political tool to solve problems and create a better world. "That's all an illusion", says Rosenthal, speaking of the belief that this is the war that will end war forever. A lot of people have questioned what the 'Grand Illusion' is, in the film. A lot of critics believe it's the perception that World War I is the war to end all war's and it being an illusion to the world. Everyone has some kind of illusion in the film. Von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu both believe what their fighting for has a greater purpose even though their outlook on the future is much different. And Maréchal and Rosenthal both have this idealistic illusion to return to the front to fight, with Maréchal leaving Elsa and a happy future behind him; because of his illusion to serve his country for the greater good. Grand Illusion broke new ground as it became the first foreign language film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Sixty years later, Janet Maslin called it "one of the most haunting of all war films." French critic Andre Bazan wrote of Renoir, "he has inherited from the literary and pictorial sensibility of his father's era a profound, sensual and moving sense of reality." Empire magazine ranked it #35 in The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema in 2010. I always wondered if Maréchal would ever survive the war and make it back to see Elsa and her daughter. In the Criterion DVD commentary it is said that an early script version had Rosenthal and Maréchal agreeing to meet in a restaurant at the end of the war. Everyone would be there celebrating while it would show two empty chairs at a table that were there for Rosenthal and Marechal; who unfortunately were both killed in the war. I prefer Renoir ending the film unambiguously, with an unknown future for the characters; and a glimmer of hope knowing harder times are still coming.