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La Grande Illusion

La Grande Illusion

By Ben Nicholson • January 22nd, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Original release: June 4th, 1937
Running time: 114 minutes

Country of origin: France

Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Charles Spaak, Jean Renoir

Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin, Eric von Stroheim, Marcel Dalio, Dita Parlo

La Grande Illusion

In 1937, with the Nazi party in power in Germany, the Rhineland occupied, and the Italians having joined Hitler in the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan, the planet was just months away from Anschluss and only two years away from the official start of World War II.

In this tumultuous time of fear and threat came a film from director Jean Renoir, which looked back at the Great War and most specifically, the men who fought in it.

Unlike many films of this ilk, La Grande Illusion does not concern itself with actually showing us the horrors of war but instead avoids the action of battle all together.

“The screenplay was based on stories Renoir had heard from friends, it avoided grand gestures and weaved a fine tapestry from the men’s nuanced performances. Each character’s humanity is explored and at one point the film appears to stop as the men discuss the meaning of Jewish generosity. Generosity was, indeed, at the core of Renoir’s approach to human beings on screen.” ¹

The characters in question are the aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) who are shot down by the enemy. They are sent to a prison camp where they join the attempts to escape by digging a tunnel, but the would-be escapees are transferred out of the camp just before their plan is able to bear fruit.

La Grande Illusion

After moving from camp to camp, they end up in a mountaintop fortress run by the man who initially felled their plane, Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim) along with their fellow prisoner from the original camp, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio).

Maréchal and Rosenthal manage to escape and on their way to the Swiss Border they hide out in an isolated German farm owned by Elsa (Dita Parlo).

The most common readings of La Grande Illusion centre on Boeldieu and Rauffenstein, the two aristocratic officers whose world it seems is being brought to an end by The Great War. When the escape from the fortress is initiated, Rauffenstein is shocked that the men would attempt such a thing, especially with Boeldieu’s own involvement, having given their word that they would not. He sees them almost as guests and feels more kinship with the French officer than he does with lower ranking German ones.

Both men understand that their way of life is dying and it seems that death during the war is a preferable way out to spare them the horrors that may follow. These class underpinnings of the narrative are also highlighted by both men’s relationships with the classic French working man, Maréchal, and the realisation that Europe will now belong to men like him; Boeldieu’s final sacrifice being the most telling metaphor for this.


  • ¹ Cousins, Mark (2004) The Story of Film, BCA, Burton-on-Trent, pp.161-2

The final sequence, which sees Maréchal and Rosenthal hiding at Elsa’s farm, not only takes us from the death of the aristocratic society of Europe, but shows us a simpler way of life. We are, of course, never under any illusion that Maréchal will be able to stay and live this way but are instead shown the alternatives to the fortress and the war.

La Grande Illusion brings us a sense of the destruction war can rain down in a myriad of ways rather than showing how gruesome and awful battle itself is. In this way of dealing with the men who fought in the war, it’s a film that doesn’t feel like the kind of anti-war statement we are used to, and as a result, it stays with you.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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