Grand Illusion is the masterpiece that earned Jean Renoir enormous acclaim in the United States, exciting the admiration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and running for 26 weeks in New York after its opening in September 1938. Banned in Italy by Mussolini, and in Germany by Goebbels (naturally), it vanished during the war, only to be recovered in 1946 in a truncated state, finally reconstructed by Renoir during the late 1950s.
Despite these tribulations, Grand Illusion has retained the look, sound, and feel of a classic. Made just three years before World War II, it gazes back to a different era, and to a war, in the words of the director, “based on fair play, a war without atom bombs or torture.” Hitler had not appeared. “Nor,” says Renoir, “had the Nazis, who almost succeeded in making people forget that the Germans are also human beings.”
Using the POW camp as a microcosm, Renoir studies the interplay of a motley group of French officers, forced to live together under the eyes of their German captors. Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is the no-nonsense Breton, ill-educated but infinitely dependable. Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) comes from the aristocracy, and carries his white gloves and monocled disdain from one camp to another. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) is of wealthy Jewish ancestry and dispels the prejudice of the men around him through generosity of mind and means. And crossing their path most memorably is the archetypal Teutonic officer, Captain von Rauffenstein, played by Hollywood’s “Man You Love to Hate,” Erich von Stroheim.
During World War I, while the future director was flying reconnaissance missions, a certain Major Pinsard saved Renoir’s life through some fearless attacks on enemy fighters. Pinsard was shot down seven times, and on every occasion contrived to land safely. Years later, while filming Toni in southern France, Renoir was irritated by the incessant din of planes using a nearby aerodrome. The instigator of the noise turned out to be none other than Pinsard. From his reminiscences, Renoir devised the story of Grand Illusion.
Grand Illusion escapes the confines of the war movie genre. Scarcely a gun is fired in anger. The trenches are nowhere in sight. Yet through some alchemy, Renoir imbues the film with his passionate belief in man’s humanity to man. In no other work, indeed, does Renoir give such obvious validity to his famous credo about the world being divided socially in horizontal, not vertical, terms. “If a French farmer found himself dining with a French financier,” he wrote, “those two Frenchman would have nothing to say to each other. But if a French farmer meets a Chinese farmer they will find any amount to talk about.” The accident of war brings out the fundamentally decent nature of people who in peacetime would be unbending strangers to one another. Von Rauffenstein invites the French officers he has just shot down to join him for lunch. Rosenthal, who suffers some initial needling about his Jewishness, lays out the contents of his sumptuous food parcel for the benefit of those who regard him so condescendingly. Elsa, the German widow, gives food and shelter to the fugitives whose countrymen have killed her husband at Verdun.
In Grand Illusion, everyone learns to give and take, without betraying his essential personality, without denying differences of language and education. The prisoners sustain themselves with small delusions: digging a tunnel by night; dressing up in drag to remind themselves of the womanhood that has no place in prison life; celebrating the smallest and most fleeting of victories as news filters in from the front; or, most pathetic of all, von Rauffenstein’s careful tending of a geranium in his fortress bedroom.
Grand Illusionis the ideal film to watch on DVD because Renoir’s technique is so self-effacing that in a theater its subtle nuances are likely to pass by the viewer. The camera lingers and shifts with these men in their cramped surroundings. Renoir allows the details to emerge by not surrendering to the snap-crackle-pop style of editing associated with war films. As he himself has written, during the meal in the first POW camp, “the camera moves over the details of the scene without ceasing to link up the whole until the sequence is ended.” This reinforces the idea of people forming a cohesive group, rather than performing life’s petty rituals in isolation. For such visual fluency, Renoir praised his nephew, Claude (the camera operator), for being “as supple as an eel.”
The superb acting in Grand Illusion stems from several styles and traditions. Gabin as Maréchal combines—as Yves Montand and Gerard Depardieu have done since—a rasping proletarian aggression with a surprising restraint and delicacy of emotion. Fresnay brings to the movie the polish and suave timing he had acquired from his work with the Comédie Française. Julien Carette, as the cheerful, vulgar actor, upstages everyone whenever he’s in sight. And towering over the film with the impassioned arrogance of some mighty statue is von Stroheim as the commandant.
French critic André Bazin wrote of Renoir that “he has inherited from the literary and pictorial sensibility of his father’s era a profound, sensual and moving sense of reality.” A film like Grand Illusion illustrates this to perfection.
Peter Cowie is the editor of the annual International Film Guide and the author of several books on cinema, including studies of Welles, Bergman, and Coppola. He is International Publishing Director of Variety.