top of page
Film Reels

La Grande Illusion
(1937)

An analysis of one of the greatest war films of all time.

la grande illusion review by Shekhar Khatri.jpg

La Grande Illusion

How Jean Renoir’s masterpiece of poetic realism examines human
relationships and the illusion of war

Film Review by Shekhar Khatri

In the 1930s, struck by the presentiment of war, Jean Renoir set out to explore the heart of human emotion through the lens of the First World War in his seminal classic, La Grande Illusion (The Grand Illusion). Jean Renoir, in his own words, wanted to showcase how the real divisions between humans are horizontal (class) rather than vertical (nationality), and the war that pierces through humanity is nothing but an illusion. Although La Grande Illusion was widely recognized as a masterpiece on its release, it was banned not only in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany but also in France due to its anti-war message; the French authorities, fearing a decline in fighting morale, called for a ban until the end of the war. The film follows a group of French soldiers, as they try to escape from a German POW camp only to be sent to an inescapable fortress presided over by a German aristocrat, von Rauffenstein, who finds in Captain de Boeldieu the closest thing to a friend among the crowd of his fellow countrymen and foreigners alike, all of them seemingly below him. With deep, well-written characters and a realistic world view, Jean Renoir places human relationships and the public reaction to war at the core of the film rather than the war itself, omitting the action and violence expected from most war films and instead opting for a more humanist approach.

Before exploring human relationships, we must know how they are formed. According to Renoir, this formation happens at the level of class and this is heavily illustrated in the film. Whether it be de Boeldieu and his icy disdain caused by a difference in class (as Maréchal puts it, “whatever happens to him he’s always Monsieur de Boeldieu”) the bond between Maréchal and Rosenthal that cannot be replicated between him and de Boeldieu, or how von Rauffenstein confides in none other than de Boeldieu, the only other member belonging to his dying breed and his enemy in war. In the dining scene at the German officer’s club, the German officer kindly offers to cut Maréchal’s meat for him because of an injury to his right arm, and when soldiers carry the wreath for the grave of the dead French pilot, everyone rises to their feet. By virtue of their common background, von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu are more similar to each other than to their countrymen; Rauffenstein eats alone at Wintersborn and de Boeldieu maintains a cold distance between himself and the other prisoners. By these interactions, it is clear that the war that divides these people is nothing but a social insignificance, a grand illusion. Renoir maintains objectivity throughout the film to reveal the illusion to the audience, but the characters remain disillusioned all the way to the end. Maréchal and Rosenthal leave Elsa’s house in order to rejoin the army and put an end to the war, but there is no end because it is only a matter of time before another one starts. At this point the World War 1 setting becomes increasingly fitting.

Along with the illusion of purpose, there also comes the illusion of choice. De Boeldieu talks about how, as a Frenchman, he has no choice but to escape German camps. When faced with Boeldieu pulling his theatrics, Rauffenstein begs him to stop and come back, knowing he may lose his only friend, but in the end, he has no choice but to shoot Boeldieu, and Boeldieu would have done the same in his position. Throughout the film, the audience is reminded that soldiers are regular people who maintain their identity through the horrors of war; the normal lives of the working class, as well as the aristocracy, are flipped around and turned into a countless series of orders coming from on high, as the people fight a war that does not belong to them.

Keeping with the objective and realistic point of view, Renoir depicts how language is an instrument of division as well as unification. The same speech patterns that separate Maréchal and de Boeldieu, unite Maréchal with the other prisoners; and Maréchal and Elsa’s love transcends the boundary of language. However, in some situations language acts as a barrier; Maréchal unsuccessfully tries to tell an English officer about the escape tunnel at the prison camp; the exchange leading up to the shooting of de Boeldieu is in English, to emphasize their privacy, their words are put beyond the listening soldiers, in complete isolation.

            With the release of La Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir firmly placed himself at the forefront of French auteur cinema. Many elements of his filmmaking are subtle, but they all contribute equally to the overall theme of realism in his works. Renoir took to filming on location, making use of deep focus photography, and the script contains heartfelt dialogue and genuine language. But even with his dedication to realism, Renoir was, after all, a romantic, and this is reflected in La Grande Illusion. The story of Elsa and Maréchal’s love which comes to a sad conclusion, the poetic cutting of the geranium, and de Boeldieu’s mortal sacrifice are all events ingrained in reality, which adds to the emotion carried with each event in the story and cements La Grande Illusion among the greatest in cinematic history.

-Shekhar Khatri

Bibliography

Cordelier, Jean-Eudes. “La censure cinématographique en France et aux Etats-Unis.” Il était une fois le cinema. January 20, 2016. https://web.archive.org/web/20160120213015/http://www.iletaitunefoislecinema.com/memoire/2128/la-censure-cinematographique-en-france-et-aux-etats-unis.

Jackson, Julian. La Grande Illusion. London: BFI Publishing, 2009.

Kerans, James. “Classics Revisited: “La Grande Illusion”.” Film Quarterly 14, no. 2 (Winter 1960): 10-17. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1210345.

Renoir, Jean, dir. La Grande Illusion. Paris: Réalisation d’art cinématographique, 1937. Theatrical.

Sesonske, Alexander. “JEAN RENOIR’S “LA GRANDE ILLUSION”.” The Georgia Review 29, no. 1 (Spring 1975): 207-244. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41397267.

Vineberg, Steve. “Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion”: The Beginning of Cinematic Realism.” The Threepenny Review 151 (Fall 2017): 22-23. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26389407.

bottom of page