When I did my profile on Normblog recently, one of the questions I answered was, What's your favourite film? This was one of the ones I named. Although I'd seen it at least twice, initially when I was a teenager, both were some years ago. So, when I saw it on the library shelf the other day, I checked it out to see if it really was as great as I remembered it. In a word, yes, it is.
Made in 1937 by the great French director Jean Renoir (son of the Impressionist painter) this is often described as an anti-war film, and so it is. But it takes a very different approach to its aims -- different from what we are used to these days, I mean, since anti-war films today usually show the horrors and pointlessness of war. La Grande Illusion, although set in World War I, does not show anything of the fighting. Instead it focuses on a small group of French officers who have been captured and imprisoned in a series of prisoner-of-war camps. In this war, officers were pretty well treated in such places -- they were allowed, at least, to have food parcels and letters, and to put on shows. The chief French characters here are the aristocrat Boeldieu, played by Pierre Fresnay, the middle-class mechanic Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the Jewish couturier Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). Then there is the German camp commandant, von Rauffenstein, played by the wonderful Eric von Stroheim. Strapped in a brace for his broken spine, wearing white gloves on his fire-burned hands, not issuing from his room until his valet has sprayed him with scent, this man has tried to recreate in his grim surroundings a replica of the world he has left behind, and nurtures one geranium on his windowsill.
As the film starts, Boeldieu and Marechal are shot down the their reconnaissance plane, and we see them being entertained for dinner by von Rauffenstein and his officers before their transfer to the camp. Straight away this scene introduces what is probably the most important theme in the film. The aristocrats, Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, discover they have friends in common, have both frequented the same restaurants before the war, even, as we find out a bit later, slept with the same woman. Their worlds are the same, in other words, and at this first dinner they chat urbanely, breaking into English from time to time. Marechal, a down to earth man of the people, is completely excluded. The story moves on to the first prison camp, where the two officers share a room with a number of other men, including the wealthy, good-hearted Rosenthal, who happily shares with his room-mates the luxurious food parcels sent to him by his rich family. After dinner, the real business of the day begins -- a tunnel is being dug, and will enable the whole roomful of men to escape from the camp. When Boeldieu is rather respectfully asked if he will share the digging, he agrees at once: 'Golf courses are for playing golf, tennis courts are for playing tennis, and prison camps are for escaping'. At last the day comes when the tunnel is complete -- but only hours before the planned escape, the men are told they are being transferred to another camp. As they line up to leave, a new consignment of men arrives, and Marechal manages to speak to one of them, in an attempt to tell them about the tunnel. But the man is English, and only says, "Sorry, old man, I don't speak French".
Next time we meet Boeldieu and Marechal, they are in a new camp, a huge medieval fortress. We gather that they have made a number of escape bids by now, and presumably have been sent here as the most secure of all the camps. Here, to their mutual surprise, it turns out that the commandant is none other than von Rauffenstein, who expresses his regrets at having to incarcerate Boeldieu, who he treats with the utmost courtesy. Boeldieu, however, though acknowledging their commonality, seems a little uncomfortable about this preferential treatment. Reaching their room, they discover an old friend, Rosenthal, and soon another escape plan is underway. Marechal and Rosenthal assume that Boeldieu will come with them, but he, instead, sets up a tremendous diversion in the castle which keeps all the guards busy while the other two men escape. This, in fact, proves to be Boeldieu's ultimate sacrifice, though he sees it as a fitting way to end his professional military career.
The last section of the film shows Marechal and Rosenthal undergoing terrible hardships on their 200 mile journey which, they hope, will lead them to safety in neutral Switzerland. Subsisting only on sugar lumps, they slowly make their way over the mountainous landscape, slowing down more and more when Rosenthal injures his foot. Finally they decide to shelter in a barn, where they are found by the only inhabitant of the farm, Elsa, a widowed German woman living alone with her daughter. She gives them food and shelter, tends Rosenthal's foot, and a relationship develops between her and Marechal. But soon the men have to go, and after a painful parting they make their way over the snow to the Swiss border. A group of German soldiers finds their tracks, and we do not know, until the very last shot, whether they will make it or not.
So why is this an anti-war film? I think it is because Renoir shows that men are not divided by race or country of origin. Again and again, we see that common humanity breaks through the barriers of the two opposing sides, whether it is the two aristocrats moving in their rarified world, or the simple German jailor who tries to cheer up Marechal when he is put in solitary confinement and is delighted when he hears the prisoner start to play the mouth organ he has left on the bed for him ("This war has gone on too long", he says to his fellow guard), or, of course, the love that develops between Marechal and Elsa, who will, perhaps, manage to be reunited when the war ends. I also think that Renoir is not being simplistic here -- there are still divisions, but they are divisions of class. Von Rauffenstein, in particular, has no time for the lower orders, and frequently speaks of 'a Marechal, a Rosenthal' as if he is describing some class of animal. Boeldieu is a much more complex character, locked into his formal upbringing and unable to accept the warm gratitude offered to him by Marechal, but obviously uncomfortable with the preferential treatment he gets from the commandant. As for Rosenthal, he is obviously an enormously sympathetic Jewish character, and possibly the reason why the Nazis not only banned the film but tried to destroy every existing copy. We can only be grateful that they didn't succeed.