La Grande Illusion (1937)

D: Jean Renoir
S: Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Eric Von Stroheim

"All time great" lists vary according to trends among critics and scholars. La Grande Illusion has fought a long battle with its close neighbour La Régle du Jeu (1938) over the course of the twentieth century which remains unresolved.

Paradoxically, the initial box office success and perennial popularity of the former film ever since may well be the strongest point against it, for critics and scholars often enjoy the resurrection of 'neglected' classics more than the life of those already recognised by the public. Few would dispute its place among the top ten, though its initial placing at a meeting of film historians in Brussels in 1958 was fifth (Battleship Potemkin was first).

Initially a straightforward escape film to be entitled "Les Evasions du Capitane Maréchal", the film's central character and star is nominally eternal French hero Jean Gabin. He plays the everyman pilot Maréchal, shot down behind German lines during WWI in the company of upper-crust officer Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay) by German ace Von Rauffenstein (Eric Von Stroheim). The two are imprisoned with other Europeans (all of whom speak their own languages) and follow the progress of the war from a distance while planning their escape. Later Maréchal and Boieldieu are transferred to a mountaintop castle where the now injured Von Rauffenstein is in command. Despite an understanding between the aristocrats from opposite sides, the escape plans continue, leading to inevitable confrontation.

The making of the film was complicated by the casting of actor/director Von Stroheim, an idol of Renoir's since his early classic Foolish Wives (1922). Overcome by the man's enormous presence, Renoir redrafted the script to expand the part of Von Rauffenstein, shifting the focus in the process. Yet Renoir's characteristic humanism would never have left the film entirely in Gabin's hands. It does take on several varied characters and their individual stories in what amounts to a microcosmic study of the class structures and attitudes of 1930s France reconciled in a portrait of men at war which explores the illusions of self and nation which define them.

But Von Stroheim still exerts the strongest presence in what remains a supporting role. He steals the film like Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs (1991). It feels empty without him, though it continues for twenty minutes after Gabin's eventual escape. The most affecting scenes are those between Von Stroheim and Fresnay. Renoir's sensitive portrayal of the manners and rituals of gentle aristocrats who realise that they and their world are in decline provides the film with an emotional core contrary to the angrier mood of many Popular Front artists with whom Renoir had previously been affiliated.

Yet the film was hailed by the left wing as a damning portrait of anachronistic social attitudes, and its message of brotherhood and solidarity between Frenchmen was universally appreciated in the pre-war environment. It was less well received in Germany, where Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels branded the film "cinematic enemy number one".

This is ironic because rather than being merely anti-German, the film is anti-war. It is a humanist cry from the heart for the abandonment of boundaries (political, personal, social) and a warning that everything man made is ultimately an illusion, be it a prison camp, a man in women's clothes performing on stage, the border between countries, or even the idea that war can settle anything. Even the strangely understandable romance which springs up in the film's final movement between German housewife Dita Parlo and Gabin is proved to be another delusion, though it represents a moment of human contact between people in need.

La Grande Illusion is a complex and detailed anti-war film which stands alongside any made since. There is very little actual violence on screen, but there is plenty of conflict. The limits of racial and social tolerance are tested, and the film does not shy from confronting the prejudices of its own heroes. That all are resolved in the face of the need to unite against a common enemy can be seen on one level as simple jingoism. But on another it reflects Renoir's universal concern with humanity over any one being.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.