Wednesday, January 4, 2012

#506. Grand Illusion (1937)

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 to be 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 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 one attempts to escape on a number of occasions. 

Labeled as troublemakers, both are 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 friendship, one that makes DeBouldieu’s fellow French 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 have already been captured. 

As I said, however, Grand Illusion is not so much a war movie as it is an attack on class structure, a theme 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”. Right off the bat, 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 are deemed suitable lunchtime companions. 

This theme continues throughout Grand Illusion, and is best demonstrated in the relationship the develops between DeBouldieu and von Rauffenstein. Apparently, the two traveled in the same circles before the war, and 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. Though separated by differing allegiances, DeBouldieu and von Rauffenstein 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.


Klaus said...

This is a curious film - and as you say, not so much an anti war movie as a commentary on class structure. It also seems to be the prototype for the "POW" film.

DVD Infatuation said...

Klaus: "Curious" is a good way to put it. When I first saw this years ago, I was under the impression it was anti-war, which doesn't really come into play much at all.

And yes, it's definitely a precursor for other POW movies like STALAG 17 and even THE GREAT ESCAPE.

Thanks for the comment!

James Robert Smith said...

Having never seen GRAND ILLUSION, I have to say that it sounds (superficially) a little bit like the plot to BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. I'll have to watch it.