(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day. These films could be nominees or they could be winners. They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee! We’ll see how things play out. Today, I take a look at the 1937 best picture nominee, Grand Illusion!)
A few things to consider when watching Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion:
It is considered to be one of the greatest French films of all time and yet, at the outbreak of World War II, it was banned by France pour la durée des hostilités. It was also banned by Nazi Germany, with Joseph Goebbles declaring it to be “Cinematic Public Enemy No, 1.” Italy followed suit, banning the film as well.
It’s a pacifist film but all of the main characters are soldiers.
It’s a war film but we never see any battles. We hear about them, of course. Characters cheer when they hear that their country has taken another town. Towards the end of the film, when a gun finally is fired, it’s jarring because it’s the first gunshot that we’ve heard throughout the entire film.
It’s a film about change, specifically the change brought about by the First World War. Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) may be French and Major von Rauffenstein (Erich van Stroheim) may be German but they both share the bond of being aristocrats. (After Rauffenstein captures Boeldieu, the two of them have a friendly conversation about their shared acquaintances.) Both of them serve in the army, not for ideological reasons but because they consider themselves to be patriots and tradition holds that aristocrats go to war for their countries. At the start of the film, both Boeldieu and Rauffenstein seem to be above the fighting but, in the end, both realize that the old ways — their ways — will not survive in the new world that’s being created by the Great War.
(In another scene, a group of Russian soldiers are excited to receive a care package from “the Czarina,” just to open up the box and discover that, instead of Vodka, they’ve been sent used textbooks. The soldiers respond by setting the box on fire. For audiences in 1937, it would be impossible to watch this scene without reflecting on the fact that the Czarina herself would soon be dead, executed by revolutionaries.)
Grand Illusion tells the story of three French officers, prisoners of war who hope to somehow escape and make their way to neutral Switzerland. Unlike the aristocratic Boeldieu, Marechal (Jean Gabin) is a member of the working class, a mechanic. Lt. Rosnethal (Marcel Dalio) comes from a wealthy family but, as a Jew, he is still viewed as an outsider. (Reportedly, Renoir specifically made Grand Illusion‘s most sympathetic and generous character Jewish as a specific rebuke to Nazi Germany and their policies.) It’s Rosenthal who gives meaning to the film’s title when he says, regarding the belief that the great war will end all other wars, “That’s just an illusion.”
All three of them are moved from prison camp to prison camp, until they eventually find themselves at the camp commanded by the man who first captured both Boeldieu and Marechal, Major van Rauffenstein. Rauffenstein explains that he was given his new post after being seriously wounded in combat and his movements are sometimes so stiff that he almost resembles a marionette, suggesting that war has reduced this proud man to merely being a puppet for his government’s war machine.
Grand Illusion is a film about the forgotten people who get caught up in the madness of war. The French POWs may say they want to return to the front but, when they meet a woman who has lost her husband and three brothers to the war, they are reminded that even “victory” comes with a steep price. Rauffenstein and Boeldiue may share much in common but ultimately, the only thing that the world cares about is that one is French and one is German. Grand Illusion was Jean Renoir’s eloquent plea for peace, issued a mere two years before Europe plunged into World War II.
In 1938, Grand Illusion was the first foreign-language film to receive an Oscar nomination for best picture. However, it lost to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You.