Grand Illusion (1937)

directed by Jean Renoir

Plot Summary
During the first World War, two French soldiers, the aristocratic Boieldieu and the working class Marechal, are shot down and captured by the polite German aristocrat, von Rauffenstein. The French are placed in a prisoner-of-war camp where they meet and befriend their fellow countrymen held there. They work together to dig a hole in an attempt to escape but are forced to switch camps just before it is completed. After a few years, Boieldieu and Marechal are placed in the supposedly inescapable German fortress, Wintersborn, which is run by von Rauffenstein. There the two French meet with their pal from an earlier camp, a wealthy middle class Jew named Rosenthal, and plan a way to regain their freedom. Boieldieu agrees to play the decoy and is reluctantly shot by von Rauffenstein as Marechal and Rosenthal escape. The two men take shelter with a German woman, Elsa, who has been widowed by the war; Marechal begins to fall in love with her. The two French must eventually leave for Switzerland, although Marechal promises to come back if he survives. German soldiers catch up to the two escapees, but refuse to fire on them since they have crossed the snowy, invisible Swiss border.


Jean Renoir’s masterful Grand Illusion is a beautifully told examination of what separates people from each other. It details the exploits of those from different classes and nations in an effort to show the common humanity present across these divisions. It is a war film, but one that has no battle scenes and little antagonism; there are really no villains. By focusing on the various relationships between individual characters, the film points out the futility and absurdity of war. Furthermore, by presenting each of its characters as complex beings and bestowing them with a certain amount of dignity, it shows life as something to be valued and makes the film a moving experience.

One would think that in a French war film, the Germans would be portrayed in a highly unflattering light. However, after von Rauffenstein has shot down his enemies’ plane, he asks them to join him at the officers’ pub. There it becomes clear that even the supposed bad guys in the film have class. One German helps Marechal cut his steak and politely chats with him. A large wreath mourning the death of a French officer passes through the place, and von Rauffenstein shows respect for his opponents by apologizing to his guests for the death of one of their men. Later, at Wintersborn, the French prisoners of war cling to their dignity in different ways. One man devotes his life to translating ancient Greek poetry, while another works at drawing pictures; Marechal and Rosenthal are uninterested in these more esoteric pursuits and plot their escape instead. After Boieldieu is shot, von Rauffenstein cuts the flower from his geranium as a poignant, mournful gesture for his friend. This act is reminiscent of some of the symbolic realism found, for instance, in Greed so it is appropriate that von Stroheim’s character is the one performing this task. It also represents the loss of hope in the idea that the aristocrats could overcome their sense of duty and pride in order to survive as a class and prevent future wars. Like the soldiers in the last scene who fire at the escapees only until they reach Switzerland, the upper class must stick to its invisible codes in spite of the absurdity or cost of doing so.

The film also manages to show some of the ill-effects or negative aspects of war without using any battle scenes. At the first camp, one of the highly decorated French soldiers discusses the fact that he has become a cuckold in spite of his success in combat. Clearly, lives are disrupted in all kinds of ways during wartime. One sequence shows young German soldiers practicing their march as Boieldieu comments that they are just children playing as soldiers. A memorable sequence involves Marechal yelling in frustration in his solitary cell, as it seems his spirit is breaking. A German soldier tries to comfort him and initially fails, but he leaves a harmonica behind. Marechal eventually starts to play on it, illustrating that he has not yet given up hope. Another soldier asks the kindly guard why Marechal was shouting, and he aptly replies, "the war is taking too long". The film tries to support the idea that man will sympathize with and take pity on his fellow man in times of despair. Additionally, the abandoned escape hole provides a metaphor for the futility of war. Unable to use it, Marechal cannot even communicate its presence to the new prisoners, showing that barriers, such as language, prevent people from understanding or helping each other; class barriers within a nation would be similarly destructive. Later in the film, the large, near-empty table at Elsa’s house symbolizes her loneliness and the men she has lost to the war. The two refugees at the end discuss the war and hope it will be the last one. Unfortunately, this optimism was not enough to prevent another devastating conflict from soon beginning.

Numerous discussions of class distinctions advance the film’s central theme regarding the dangers of creating boundaries between people. The three main characters represent different classes in society with Boieldieu as the aristocrat, Rosenthal as the wealthy bourgeoisie, and Marechal as a member of the working class. At one point there is a discussion about how the various classes would all die of their specialized diseases if not for the supreme equalizer, war. Paradoxically, then war tends to bring the different classes into close contact, although it is the misunderstandings between these groups that often leads to war. Boieldieu frequently questions why he gets special treatment from von Rauffenstein, implying that he is aware of the inequalities of class distinction and does not necessarily approve. Marechal regrets that everything comes between him and Boieldieu, yet the aristocrat keeps his heroic guard up, refusing to let Marechal thank him or become emotional. It seems that Boieldieu realizes the time for his kind has passed and tells von Rauffenstein that perhaps it would be good for them to die in the war. Exhibiting a fatalistic pessimism, the German states that he has missed his chance. The film looks to the teamwork of Marechal and Rosenthal as hope for the future but also seems to lament the loss of the aristocratic type of man, despite his flaws.

In Wintersborn, Marechal talks to Rosenthal about how he can’t relate to Boieldieu. It seems that true understanding or communication between the upper and lower classes is impossible. Later, at Elsa’s, Marechal verbalizes an aspect of this concept when talking to her cow, calling it "poor cow" and himself "poor man" and saying that even though they were born in different places, they can still be "pals". This scene establishes him more in the natural order of things as opposed to the aristocrats’ specific code of honor, so, therefore, the hope for future solidarity rests with him. This can be inferred from one of the final sequences when Rosenthal discusses finding the Swiss border that is "man-made and invisible", while contrastingly "nature doesn’t give a damn." His statements sum up the film’s major theme well: the natural (and right) way to look at things is without the borders or barriers that man establishes to cut himself off from others. It is the effectively conveyed thematic depth of Grand Illusion that most consistently impresses, although the excellent use of long takes and shots in depth are important techniques. The filmmakers hide this technique well enough to not interfere with the narrative, much like in the classical hollywood mold. Simply stated, Jean Renoir is one of the most important filmmakers in cinema history, and Grand Illusion is one of his best works.

7 of 10

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© 1999

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