Directed By: Jean Renoir
Starring: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay
Trivia: The uniform worn by Jean Gabin was actually owned and worn by Jean Renoir, who served in the air force during WWI
Considered by many one of the greatest anti-war movies ever made, Grand Illusion brought its director, Jean Renoir, his share of fame (it was the first foreign language film nominated for Best Picture by the Academy) and infamy (this film was the key reason Nazi propaganda expert Joseph Goebbels branded Renoir “Cinematic Public Enemy Number One”). Yet despite the backdrop of World War I, Grand Illusion is more a critique on social class systems and their effect on society than it is an exposé of the atrocities of war.
When their plane is shot down, two French officers, Capt. DeBouldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a pilot and member of the French aristocracy, and Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin), a mechanic, are captured and sent to a German Prisoner of War camp, where each man attempts to escape on a number of occasions. Labeled as troublemakers, they're transferred to a veritable fortress under the command of Capt. von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). While there, DeBouldieu and von Rauffenstein, himself a nobleman in his native country, forge a strong friendship, one that makes DeBouldieu’s fellow prisoners uncomfortable. But the Captain will be given a chance to prove his patriotism when Marechal and another Frenchman, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), attempt a daring escape.
For a film that’s supposed to be anti-war, Grand Illusion contains very few combat scenes. For example, we never actually see the plane carrying DeBouldieu and Marechal go down; they take off, and by the time we rejoin them, they've already been captured. But as I said, Grand Illusion is not so much a war movie as it is an attack on class structure, a premise established in the opening sequence, where von Rauffenstein (before becoming Commandant of the POW camp, he was a fighter pilot) sends his assistant to collect the new prisoners. “If they’re officers”, he says, “invite them for lunch”. Almost immediately, the fact that DeBouldieu and Marechal are enemy combatants is of secondary concern to their military standing, and because both men are of higher rank, they're deemed suitable lunchtime companions.
This theme continues throughout Grand Illusion, and is best demonstrated in the relationship between DeBouldieu and von Rauffenstein. Apparently, the two traveled in the same circles before the war, and both are bonded to a well-respected European aristocracy, a bond that Marechal and the other prisoners could never hope to understand. In truth, DeBouldieu has more in common with the enemy von Rauffenstein than he does his own countrymen. Separated by differing allegiances, they nonetheless share a similar heritage, which proves stronger than any boundaries laid down on a map.
Grand Illusion shows that, while war is sometimes waged between nations, battle lines can just as easily be defined by societal loyalties. In such instances, soldiers are left wondering who the enemy truly is, and, more to the point, what it is they’re fighting for in the first place.