Great Films: La Grande Illusion (Renoir, 1937)

Widely regarded not simply as one of the best films about war, but one of the greatest films in cinema history, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion remains a powerful artistic and moral statement about the consequences of conflict.

The film is set during the First World War, and one of the key themes is one of class conflict; the two aristocratic characters on either side of the war, Boeldieu and Rauffenstein, through their mutual respect and multi-lingual verbal jousts, are shown to have more in common with each other than they do with officers on their own sides. Time is running out for them, though; both are aware that the war will signal the end of the hegemony of the aristocracy in Europe, an overdue death knell for their feudal positions; “For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy, but for you and I, it’s a good way out”, Boieldieu utters in one particularly poignant scene. This sense of inevitable change would later be a key theme of a protege of Renoir’s, Luchino Visconti, in particular in Il Gattopardo, his dramatisation of the Risorgimento in nineteenth-century Italy.

Within the film, issues concerning the First World War are addressed, but it must be remembered that it was made in 1937, when Europe was once again on the cusp of bloody conflict. Any doubts that the film was intended to have a contemporary message are dispelled by the inclusion of a Jew as one of the key protagonists, a defiant challenge to political situation in Germany. The fraternity between the Jew Rosenthal, the French Maréchal, and later a German widow, was clearly intended as an illustration that war is merely a means of dividing people and their common humanity.

La Grande Illusion is a war film without any war sequences, though its presence is always palpable. In one memorable scene we see a lingering shot of a German widow’s dining table, now too large for her depleted family, reminding us of the human cost of war. There is an added level of irony, as she describes that her brothers died in “some of our greatest victories”; win or lose, the consequences are still the same, still just as life-alteringly destructive. The bleak picture of the effect of war on ordinary civilians is in stark contrast to life in the POW camps; the scenes here are played with a light, joky tone, and are much echoed in John Sturges’ classic The Great Escape.

Jean Renoir (1894-1979), whom Orson Welles labelled “the greatest of all directors”, is widely regarded as one of the key fathers of cinema. The son of impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, he developed an interest in cinema after being severely injured during the First World War. He started making films in 1924, heavily under the influence of both Austrian silent film legend Erich von Stroheim, and Charlie Chaplin. By 1936, he had made two of his enduring classics: Toni, a clear influence on the later Italian neo-realism movement, and Partie de Campagne, on which a young Luchino Visconti worked as an assistant. His two magnum opi, La Grande Illusion and La Règle du Jeu, followed in 1937 and 1939 respectively.

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