Good war stories are complicated, because war is often complicated. History often bears out winners and losers, the latter group is not only defined by their technical loss, but by their moral shortcomings. Every enemy is morally bankrupt, willing to fight any fight for victory. So, we’re supposed to show up in even greater force, unrelenting in our patriotic values and nationalist pride. These are ideals I’ve never understood, probably because I’m a comfortably privileged American, but also because these are just glorified, socially sanctioned practices of mob mentality, of us versus them. This is why most war films come off as propaganda, and why the best ones ruthlessly question the costs of military engagement.
While almost every film ever made is about the meaning of life, few capture that scope quite as successfully as Grand Illusion, using the tension of war–a literal matter of life and death–as a faint backdrop. In fact, Grand Illusion might be the most restrained war film ever made. For as much is made of the bloodshed and backstage political machinations, Grand Illusion acknowledges that war is mostly waiting out a situation in which the participants most deeply entrenched in the conflict, on either side, have no real control. With that lens of war, director and co-writer Jean Renoir crafts a meticulous portrait of compassion.
Grand Illusion follows a group of French officers sometime during the first World War, namely Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), as they and their countrymen are held in various camps as prisoners-of-war. Together, they represent two kinds of soldiers. Boeldieu is of the old guard, fighting for flag and country, honoring his affluent lineage. The slighly younger, more vital Maréchal is not nearly as pious. He constantly makes jokes, mocking his captors under his breath in their German whenever some new item is prohibited, denounced as “verboten.” Other French POWs–like Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), who is closer in age to Maréchal, but seems to carry Boeldieu’s aristocratic torch–somewhat share his indifference, most of them just happening into the war, each with their own philosophies. They eat together, they argue about class, they lament how much they miss women. These scenes, of POWs conversing and joking are perhaps the most endearing. The camera weaves in and around their settings, populating them with peers, fitting in as many people as possible, always giving a sense of community. That way, when characters are alone, or when they’re one-on-one, that sense of presence, or lack thereof, is felt.
Throughout the film, the French continually attempt to escape whatever camp they’re in at any given time. Yet, this gives way to the most significant insight of Grand Illusion: For as badly as the French want to leave, the Germans don’t really want to stick around, either. When we think of German concentration camps, we think of Jewish detention in Auschwitz or Dachau. These digs, at least at first, don’t seem punishing at all. POWs can, for the most part, roam as they please, and do whatever. As long as they follow the rules, the captives are safe. This is not necessarily because the Germans here are secretly good people, but because being intimidating and gambling the trust of prisoners turns everything into a bigger hassle. In fact, the only time anyone is shot is when they’re caught trying to escape, and refuse to surrender. When Maréchal instigates a riot at around the halfway point of the film, he’s thrown into solitary confinement. After a while, the loneliness gets to him, and he raves to one of the guards. When another officer asks why Maréchal is shouting, the guard simply replies, “The war’s lasting too long.” The walls are closing in, and Maréchal knows it.
This is best illustrated by Boeldieu’s relationship with German Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (the legendary Erich von Stronheim). Where the first part of the film finds momentum in a broad, but tangible kind of fraternity, the latter portion finds similar drive between Boeldieu and Rauffenstein. Their interplay suggests an aching tenderness that is never directly articulated, but is no less palpable–largely because Fresnay, and especially Stronheim are so compelling together. A decorated aviator, Rauffenstein shoots down Maréchal and Boeldieu at the top of the film, inviting them to a civil lunch, and reuniting with them in the film’s second half. Boeldieu and Rauffenstein both come from affluent families, even knowing of each other through mutual acquaintances. Their rapport is so intimate that they’ll occasionally host their conversations in English, which only they speak. If nothing else, their dynamic is a knowing dissection of privilege. Boeldieu, a wealthy Christian and military officer, uses his close friendship with Rauffenstein to protect the lower-class Boeldieu, and the Jewish Rosenthal.
Renoir uses these two aging characters to bridge something that goes beyond party (or battle) lines. While Boeldieu and Rauffenstein are celebrated, they’re largely ignored by their unseen, presumably government overseers–like disinterested false gods–and can speak freely to one another behind closed doors. They’re the kind of men who have not only met the same people and have had affairs with the same women from restaurants they’ve both frequented, but who relate to each other in a way that renders every other human encounter in the film comparatively shallow. Their military careers live and die on a kind of religiosity, and though these two officers come from separate faiths, their discussions are of mutual respect and understanding. Renoir demonstrates this with enormous sensitivity. So, when the narrative objectives of these two men can’t wait any longer, their differences in allegiance feel meaningless, and their story more tragic. Yet, they can forgive one another, because, to them, duty is duty.
Of course, neither Boeldieu or Rauffenstein are the center of Grand Illusion. We’re meant to follow Maréchal, who, admittedly, is the blandest part of the film, despite a respectable college try from Gabin. Maréchal is the everyman. In an American film, he’d a be a cowboy at the end of his prime. But like every good western would go on to illustrate, cowboys can’t settle down until they’re done being cowboys. The initially aimless Maréchal learns that being alone doesn’t work. One of the film’s cleverer motifs is the use of music. We see music being used joyfully, we see marches that are ominous, we see performances that are rousing, we see music as purposeful cacophony, and we see music as a character’s turning point. In the aforementioned scene in solitary, the guard whom Maréchal breaks down in front of comforts Maréchal with some cigarettes, and a small harmonica. He’s an older man, and knows the toll of being a soldier. Moreover, they don’t even speak the language, driving Maréchal even more insane, when all he wants to hear is another French voice. So, the guard gives Maréchal this minor instrument. As Maréchal plays a deceptively melancholic tune, the guard sings along as he leaves the cell. When Maréchal looks for unity, when he picks others, he becomes a person with purpose.
Grand Illusion, though a period piece even when the film was made, is a bit unnerving for how prescient the ideas Renoir espouses still are. The film intended to reflect the rise of Nazism–going so far as to depict imprisoned Russian soldiers receiving a large package that is nothing but books, which they angrily set ablaze, insinuating that German nationalism instigated outrage manifested in the anti-intellectual practice of burning literature. In the U.S., the news is riddled with stories of enabled White Nationalism under an administration who won’t speak against such a radical and problematic movement. Though the film acknowledges how cyclical mass conflict is, I don’t know if Renoir meant to predict something as specific as Nazism making a resurgence–certainly not from a country who sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight against such inhumane ideologies. We see people trying and failing, repeatedly, to change their circumstances. When the film ends, we’re told that the grandest illusion is that the war being fought will end war at all. Countries will disagree and go too far, and bodies will be thrown at each other until someone waves a white flag. In that sense, Grand Illusion is every bit as bleak as any number of carnage-filled depictions of attrition.
Yet, as hopeless as this is, the film also argues that we could stop at any time. We don’t even need to speak the same language to communicate, not when anyone can feel music, not when we can break bread with one another. Class, race, religion, nationality, flags, etc., these are all excuses people make for not acknowledging humanity, because being vulnerable and human can be scary, even though this doesn’t have to be the case. In that sense, Grand Illusion offers immense optimism under so much tragedy.
Jean Renoir is perhaps the most influential filmmaker ever to come out of France, certainly pre-New Wave, and Grand Illusion is his most acclaimed film, second only to The Rules of the Game. Moreover, this is the first foreign language film ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. That is the extent of which I went into this film, yet I see the influence everywhere. I see the prison-yard bonding of the bolder-faced The Shawshank Redemption. I see the use of space and movement that serves as the basis for Gregg Toland’s cinematography in Citizen Kane. I see the cannibalistic politics of Battle Royale. I see the suspenseful run for salvation in The Night of the Hunter. Most of all, I see the most blatant appropriation of a film moment when Maréchal rouses his compatriots into singing “Le Marseilles” in Casablanca. Yet, none of these elements feel like they do in Grand Illusion. With few exceptions, none of them are as fresh, as natural, and as full of intent. Grand Illusion isn’t just groundbreaking for its era. This is a timeless work, that is a masterclass in cinematic craft and storytelling. Grand Illusion is as thoughtful, funny, exhilarating, heartbreaking, and triumphant as anything else, even if nothing else feels quite like it.