A+ List: Grand Illusion

Most movies are forgotten five years after their release. The masterpieces last decades. And so I continue with my survey of my all-time favorite films–my A+ list.

Early in Jean Renoir’s 1937 POW tale, a German officer announces that he just shot down a plane. He orders an underling to find and a capture the French crew, and “If they’re officers, invite them to lunch.” Odd for what is essentially an anti-war film, Grand Illusion looks back at World War I as something of a gentleman’s game. In the two prisoner-of-war camps where most of the film is set, basic decency prevails. Soldiers are soldiers, officers are officers, and aristocrats are aristocrats–no matter what side of the barbed wire they’re on.

But then, Grand Illusion is not really about war. It’s about the way that human beings separate themselves into nationalities, classes, and ethnicities. These illusionary differences inevitably lead to bigotry, suffering, and worst of all, war. Renoir doesn’t show us that war is hell–that’s a given. But he shows us the common humanity on both sides of national and class divisions. Perhaps, if we could all remember that humanity, we could prevent the next war.

Grand Illusion has no villains. The German guards may occasionally be stern, but never excessively cruel. At times the guards go out of their way to be kind to their charges.

Two characters represent the aristocracy–the French Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and the German Rauffenstein (Stroheim). At some point between treating his prisoners to lunch and his reappearance much later in the film, Rauffenstein suffered a serious-enough wound to take him out of the front lines. For this military romantic, his new position commanding a POW camp is a fate worse than death. When Boeldieu is transferred to the camp, Rauffenstein befriends him. The fellow Germans under his command aren’t worth his companionship, but an aristocratic enemy is a gift from heaven.

Stroheim turns Rauffenstein into a tragic figure. His identity is completely wrapped up in his status as an aristocrat. But he knows that the days of Europe’s aristocracy are numbered, and that he would soon be an anachronism. By contrast, the French Boeldieu carries his aristocratic status lightly, and doesn’t see himself as anything special.

The top billing, of course, goes to the movie star, Jean Gabin. His Lieutenant Maréchal seems to be of lower-middle class origin. He’s a decent fellow, and a ladies man (hey, he’s Jean Gabin). But he carries the casual bigotries of his upbringing, and will have to overcome them.

Most of those casual bigotries aim at Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). His family of bankers has more money than any of the aristocrats, but they gain no respect from that. Their money isn’t old. And worse, they’re Jews. Rosenthal receives wonderful care packages from his family, and he takes great pains to share them with the other prisoners. But that doesn’t protect him from their thoughtless insults.

But when Maréchal plans the daring escape that dominates the film’s final section, he chooses Rosenthal as his companion. It’s also in this late section that Maréchal has a romance with a German woman played by Dita Parlo. Love knows no borders, but borders can interfere with love.

Grand Illusion is the earliest talkie I know of that absolutely demands subtitles–no matter what’s your native language. It’s a French film, and most of the dialog is in French. But there’s quite a bit of German, and some English and Russian. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu often speak to each other in English, presumably because they can. Or perhaps because Stroheim, after nearly 30 years in the USA, now spoke German with an American accent.

The message of Grand Illusion didn’t reach anybody, and certainly not the people who really needed it. Two years and two months after the film’s release, France and Germany were at war again–in a conflict far more deadly than World War I. It would be years before anyone could again accept a movie where a German prison guard behaves like a decent human being.