Jean Renoir's La grande illusion is a wonderful film, filled with characters and events and images that stay with the viewer long after the end of the last reel. The story of Lieutenant Marechal and his comrades-in-arms who are captured by the Germans during World War I, this is one of the most moving and profound films ever about war, and, ironically, at the same time one of the least "warlike."
When so many elements which add to a film come together as they do in La grande illusion, it is hard to single out a decisive feature which makes it great. Instead, we can imagine the production of the film as a process in which the various elements intersected and built upon each other, with the actors influencing the script, the script providing a sturdy framework for the actors, the director influencing the actors as they influenced him, the costumes and sets inspiring new ideas for the director and actors, and on and on. It is easy to imagine this because La grande illusion is so smooth and fluid and sure-footed.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that this is Jean Renoir's film. Written and directed by Renoir, and loosely based upon his experiences in World War I, La grande illusion achieves a rare unity of purpose and drama that is subtle yet overpowering. The most apt metaphor for the film is perhaps a minuet, with graceful, deft motions, but real power when performed with real emotion.
The camera work in the film is expert. We are constantly in motion, however slight, except for a few key moments when the motionlessness really jumps out to underscore an emotion, as when de Boeldieu is framed in the spotlight before he continues on and is shot, or when the young soldier comes out in drag, or when Rosenthal is sitting on a rock after Marechal has left him to fend for himself (momentarily). Renoir also frames shots brilliantly, showing us a result and then moving back to show us the causes of the action, as when the young soldier comes out in drag. Renoir then moves back to the other side of the room and shows us each soldier's individual reaction in the silence that swallows the scene, finally moving back to the soldier himself, unaware of the powerful reaction he has caused. In Renoir's hands, this becomes not a cliche, but a moving, if slightly unsettling, revelation.
La grande illusion is acted with grace and skill and a reassuring competence. "Competence" is not meant to be even slightly disparaging, but rather one of the highest compliments. There are no moments when we see the actors acting. There are no hilarious cameos or self-conscious "star turns." Rather, the acting stays below the surface of the film, a servant of the characters and the plot. Especially expert are Jean Gabin as Lieutenant Marechal, Pierre Fresnay as Captain de Boeldieu, Marcel Dalio as Rosenthal, and Julien Carette as the actor. Erich Von Stroheim is quite effective as Captain von Rauffenstein.
The real power of La grande illusion is in its relationships. In a subtle condemnation of war, Renoir asserts the primacy of the individual, one-on-one relationship over anything that can be achieved in artificially created or sustained groups which may rest on little more than a temporary common situation or a national origin. Von Rauffenstein is cordial to the two officers he has just had shot down, inviting them to lunch and conversing with them amicably, based upon their affinity as soldiers, whatever the side they are on. However, this is a rather superficial relationship, as evidenced by the fact that he has just had them shot down and is about to send them to a prison camp. But when von Rauffenstein is forced to shoot de Boeldieu by his own conception of duty and honor and later holds vigil at his deathbed, we see that there has been a real exchange of emotion and friendship between the two men. The soldiers in the camp have a certain camaraderie, but it is largely a surface heartiness toward their fellow countrymen and prisoners than anything real, even between Marechal and de Boeldieu. Later however, what passes between Marechal and de Boeldieu and Marechal and Rosenthal has become real when developed one-on-one. Finally, Marechal and Elsa, the Frenchman and the German widowed by the French, overcome language and fear to fall in love.
If there is a theme beyond the rich narrative of La grande illusion, it is that the boundaries and divisions between people that are created by outside forces matter little, even in a world at war.
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