The Grand Illusion (1937)
directed by Jean Renoir
The Grand Illusion, together with The Rules of the Game is Jean Renoir's best known film. But unlike The Rules of the Game, which was universally maligned by both critics and the moviegoing public and banned by the French government for bad taste, The Grand Illusion was universally praised to become the instant classic. Well, this tale of two movies has perhaps most to do with the tones of the movies and Renoir's humanistic tendancy to approaching everything with understanding and fairness, as far as that is possible, even with things that he is actually lampooning (as in The Rules of the Game.) In case of The Rules of the Game, maybe the moviegoers could not reconcile the frivolity of life - as offensive as that was - and profound sympathy that was shown to them. But in The Grand Illusion, the noble themes and situations are more acceptible.
Renoir's films are rarely if ever about just one thing, and The Grand Illusion is no exception. First of all, what is the "grand"(more accurately, great or maybe even gross) illusion that the title refers to? It obviously refers to the illusion that the war will be over soon as it is often expressed in the movie. It is also the illusion that war is noble or honorable, or that war brings divided classes together. It also refers to the illusions of the German officer Rauffenstein of the old and new order.
But it probably also refers to the illusion that the audience experiences at the end of the movie. At the superficial level, some moviegoers may feel that Marechal and Rosenthal escape successfully to France and that after war Marechal would Elsie. Although other moviegoers would find such prospect too optimistic, they would feel that the audience could choose either way - Marechal will return to Else or he will not. But any kind of optimistic sense felt at the end of the movie is the "grand" illusion.
The fact is that Marechal and Rosenthal probably will return to France, and possibly be killed in later battles (though Rosenthal reappears in the Rules of the Game, it seems to be more of in-joke than the same character); in any case, the reunion of Else and Marechal is illusion. Although it seems that the national boundaries have been overcome by two characters, it turns out to be illlusion not because there is any truth to the boundary, which is man-made, but because of the social condition that is shaped by these boundaries. The bond between Marechal and Else, and between Marechal and Rosenthal are genuine but fragile liek von Rauffenstein's geranium. There are several times when they overcome nationality and religion toward common bond of humanity, but in the end, boundaries and social conditions impose order again. So at the end, when they make final sprint toward the Swiss border, Marechal and Rosenthal exchange words of farewell as if they are going their separate ways.
In the movie, as noted, there are all kinds of man-made boundaries that separate men from others - class, nationality, language, (German, French, English, and Russian are prominently spoken in various scenes), ethnicity (there is even African officer in POW camp, and he's not there accidently), religion(which is quite prominent in one particular scene). After all, this film is the granddaddy of POW and escape genre, and the boundary manifests in physical forms of barbed wires, walls, and national borders. The main characters try to break out from the imposed boundary just as much from prison walls. But for Renoir, the boundary that separates men more than anything else is that of class - which separates common men from aristocrats. We see all sorts of social group that can be categorized - a student of Pindar, vegetarian, engineer, and various people who are occupied with different kinds of concerns. The movie often concerns itself with what these people will do if they get out of prison or if war is over. One of the most remarkable myth about the war is that it unites all social groups in one patriotic solidarity.
The division among men is paradoxically most apparent in the closeness of two main characters. In fact, von Rauffenstein and de Boieldieu are so much in tune with each other that they almost appear to have been friends even though they meet for the first time in the movie. They have common acquaintances, place they have been to, but what brings them together in the end is their class.
Although Renoir is sympathetic to these aristocratic characters, he does not grieve with them about the end of the old order, which the WWI brought about. Theirs is the class that must die out (aristoracy in Europe still lingered through the thirties to the WWII, which was to be the coup de grace, especially in Germany and France.), the new beginning starts in the last third of the film with Marechal, Rosenthal, and Else.
Renoir's universe of complex orders and characters are well served by his film technique that utilizes depth of field and adroit tracking shot for The Grand Illusion is one of the best examples of democratic aspects that realist school is striving to achieve. I am not one to feel nostalgic about aristocracy, and certainly not Renoir (who supported the Popular Front), but Renoir tells the most elegiac story about passing of an age - from the age of aristocracy to the modern age.
The Grand Illusion was made in 1937, when with Sudenten crisis and all that, there was distinct certainty that a major war was brewing in Europe. In this sense, The Grand Illusion was a plea for bond of brotherhood and higher understanding. Yet Renoir was also a realist. More and more one thinks about the movie, there is a greater sense of tragedy.
Reviewed by Ilian
Posted on 1/23/01