La Grande Illusion, a French film directed by Jean Renoir, has recently been restored and re-released. It was made in 1937 and was banned by the Nazis. Joseph Goebbels called Renoir ‘Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1′. It is set in WWI, mostly in Prisoner of War (PoW) camps, but features little combat. The key issues of the film are class, nationality and duty.
The film starts with Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a pilot from a humble background, preparing to fly on a reconnaissance mission with Captaine de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocratic staff officer. The next scene takes place in a German officers’ mess. The two Frenchmen have been shot down by von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), another aristocrat. He invites them for lunch before they are sent to a PoW camp. Von Rauffenstein knows de Boeldieu’s cousin and they find that they move in similar circles.
The scenes in the PoW camp are similar to those in later American and British films about WWII PoWs; the French officers dig a tunnel with improvised tools, presenting difficulties in disposing of the soil; the guards are dim; Maréchal spends time in solitary confinement; the prisoners put on a concert party; they eat well thanks to parcels from home, especially those sent to Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), the son of a rich banker.
It must be remembered that this is a 1937 film; it is the later Anglo-American films that have followed Renoir. The French officers come from a wide range of backgrounds, but co-operate well in their attempts to escape and share their parcels from home. There is a link between the defiant singing of the Marseillaise in this film and the similar scene in Casablanca; in the later film, Madeleine Lebeau, Dalio’s then wife, appears in the Marseillaise scene, playing Yvonne, Rick’s jilted lover. Dalio played the croupier in Casablanca.
Maréchal and de Boeldieu are eventually sent to a fortress prison camp. Rosenthal is already an inmate and von Rauffenstein, unfit for combat service because of wounds, is the commandant. Von Rauffenstein offers privileges to de Boeldieu. He is prepared to take de Boeldieu’s word of honour that his quarters contain no prohibited items, but insists on searching the quarters of other French officers.
Von Rauffenstein’s motivation appears to be that he sees a bond between two aristocratic, regular officers rather than any attempt to turn the Frenchman against his colleagues and country. There is a clear link between the two aristocrats, who can switch fluently between English, French and German, have friends and acquaintances in common, and to a large extent belong to an international class. They foresee that their class and way of life is doomed, regardless of which side wins the war.
An excellent film, well acted and directed film, which is the precursor of many other PoW films. Some do not like films that are in 1.33 aspect ratio, black and white, subtitled and have only two female characters, a mother and her small daughter. If you do not have such objections, then it is well worth seeing.
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