A war movie without a battle scene. A prison escape drama whose first escape plan never comes to fruition and whose second has an anticlimactic conclusion. Grand Illusion is a puzzle of a film, one that plays with many genre elements without being bound to any of them.
That’s because director Jean Renoir, working from a script he wrote with Charles Spaak, is interested, first and foremost, in the people he’s placed on screen: where they are from, who they represent and how they relate to each other. Here, World War I is little more than the stage for his human play, just as the aristocratic estate would be in Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.
As in that 1939 masterpiece, class plays a crucial role here. After being shot down while conducting a reconnaissance flight, Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a French aristocrat, and Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin), a working-class pilot, are captured and invited to lunch with a German commander named von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). An aristocrat himself, who believes war should be conducted with the best of manners, Rauffenstein tells them, “I am honored to have French guests.” He and his fellow officers speak to their prisoners in polite French over an elaborate meal, and the scene almost plays as farce (if not something from Luis Bunuel). Certainly it highlights the absurdity of war, or possibly the absurdity of such civilized behavior when war is going on just outside the luncheon’s door.
Eventually Marechal and de Boeldieu are sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, where they share a bunkhouse with other Frenchmen. Here the class distinctions become even more evident. There’s a Jewish officer (Marcel Dalio) from a nouveau riche family who eventually wins over the others by sharing the food packages he’s regularly sent from home. Also on hand is a former actor (Julien Carette) who brings the bawdiness of the stage into the mix and even helps put on an elaborate musical revue. Together, this band concocts a tunnel escape plan. Dumping the hidden dirt from his pants while out in the camp’s garden, de Boeldieu drily observes, “This curious exercise will give us laborer’s hands.”
Renoir’s camera frequently peers in and out of windows in Grand Illusion, including an intricate shot that purposefully places this disparate crew in a single, unified frame. Working on the costumes for their revue, they hear German recruits marching to music in the courtyard below. As the camera backs out of the window, Marechal, de Boeldieu and the rest stand up and gather together at the window to watch. Renoir then cuts to a tracking close-up that captures each face. “You must admit it’s stirring,” one of the Frenchmen says. “It isn’t the music that gets you,” Marechal bitterly responds. “It’s the marching feet.”
Grand Illusion is a puzzle of a film, one that plays with many genre elements without being bound to any of them.
Not that Grand Illusion means to demonize the Germans. In fact, declaring that there are “good” people and “bad” people is one of the illusions the movie seeks to dispel. This becomes especially clear in the film’s second section, when Marechal, de Boeldieu and Rosenthal, the Jewish officer, are sent to another prison, a castle fortress run by none other than Rauffenstein. Still tied to the code of an earlier era, Rauffenstein invites de Boeldieu to his chamber for personal chats. Why me? De Boeldieu asks. Rauffenstein is frank: because they belong to the same upper class. What he doesn’t realize is that these notions have begun to erode in de Boeldieu, who has come to see less and less difference between himself and Marechal (even if he still prefers to wear his white gloves).
The actors bring a wide range of performance styles to Grand Illusion, yet they manage to work in concert. Gabin wears his emotions on the surface, especially when Marechal is sent for a stint in solitary confinement and the gruff exterior he had been sporting begins to crack. Fresnay is comically precise in his haughtiness, while von Stroheim goes for full-fledged laughs as Rauffenstein. Many find von Stroheim touching and elegiac – and there are instances of that – but mostly I appreciate his performance as a comedic sendup of a German nobleman who’s a closet Francophile. Sporting a monocle to match de Boeldieu’s and running his prison according to French regulations, Rauffenstein seems more interested in pleasing his favored guest than ensuring security. There are also little details – the quick squat of delight Rauffenstein does after cracking a joke or the way his elaborate neck brace makes him look like Darth Vader without his helmet – that makes me think he was envisioned as a comic character first.
Which isn’t to say that Grand Illusion is blithe about warfare. Although there aren’t any battle scenes, the grave cost of conflict intrudes here and there: a memorial wreath that interrupts that early lunch, the body of a French POW who attempted to escape. Most gutting, for me, was an off-handed comment made by a German farmwife (Dita Parlo) after we’ve learned that her husband and other family members have been killed in the war: “The table’s grown too big.” Renoir cuts to a shot of the kitchen table where a handful of chairs have been turned upside down, out of use.
This occurs in the film’s final and slightly odd section, after Marechal and Rosenthal have escaped the fortress and are hiding out at a German farm. A melodrama of sorts develops between Marechal and the widow that tonally seems to be from a different film, yet thematically is a match. Marechal expresses hope that the war will soon be over and they’ll be able to recreate a normal, domestic life, but Rosenthal tells him that’s just another illusion. And as World War II would prove only a few short years after this movie’s release, he was right.