La Grande Illusion

Another classic film and another featuring the legendary Jean Gabin [see the post on Touchez Pas Au Grisbi].  This is Jean Renoir’s legendary anti-war film made during the rise of Nazi Party and the European Right just before the beginning of the Second World War.

Jean Renoir was the son of the painter Pierre Auguste Renoir who was one of the “founders” of the Impressionists, if a true art movement or style can be honestly said to have anything as fixed as a founder.

Renoir had fought in the First World War as a cavalry officer and as a reconnaissance pilot and Gabin’s character is also a pilot but one who has been shot down and captured by the Germans. [Top fact: The uniform worn by Gabin is Renoir’s]. Since he persistently tries to escape he has been sent, along with the other troublesome prisoners, to Wintersborn, a supposedly escape-proof castle in the mountains.

I wonder if anyone would ever dare make a film about an escape prison that proves to be so.

This is a war film in which there are no “typical” war scenes.  Of course there are military types and uniforms but there are no battles and the shooting is limited.  This is a film as much about the changes coming to Europe as much as it is about the humanity of the people who are left to fight the wars.  The film is apparently named for a book by the economist Norman Angell which argues that war is futile because it is against the economic interests of all European nations.  As arguments for war go, I’d have to put economic ones fairly low down the list but if that can serve to influence people then fair enough.  It may well be that Renoir sees war as being largely futile on every level and that it is an illusion to think otherwise.

The three main French characters are perhaps representative of France.  Jean Gabin plays Maréchal, the tough French everyman from Paris,  Captain de Boeldieu [Pierre Fresnay] the upper class nobleman who is distantly acquainted with the aristocratic German camp commandant von Rauffenstein [Erich von Stroheim] and Rosenthal [Marcel Dalio], from a well-off Jewish family.  von Rauffenstein was the pilot who shot Maréchal and de Boeldieu down.

The fact that de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein have friends in common goes to demonstrate the cross-border nature of the intermarried European aristocracy.  There is an awareness that Europe is changing and that the aristocracy as it once was, is finished and, as de Boeldieu lies dying, he mentions his sadness for von Rauffenstein who will be obliged to find a new role once the war ends.

There is some anti-semitism directed at Rosenthal and it tends to be of the insidious, off-hand type which is soon forgotten when food parcels from Rosenthal’s family are delivered and the contents shared around.  Towards the end of the film Maréchal and Rosenthal seem to, through joking comments, accept each other through the ironic mocking of Rosenthal’s Jewishness.

Maréchal and Rosenthal escape and find refuge with Elsa, a German woman widowed by the war played by Dita Parlo.  Eventually Maréchal and Rosenthal move on, with Maréchal promising to go back to Elsa.

Dita Parlo also appeared in the classic L’Atalante and was the inspiration for Madonna’s “alter-ego character” on her Erotica album and Dita von Teese, the burlesque artist, took her name from Dita Parlo. 

This is a classic film and one that rightly turns up on the Top 100 Film lists.  Its influence can be readily seen in The Great Escape and also in Casablanca but this is a film in which our shared humanity is highlighted and is shown as more powerful than any superficial differences.


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