powered by AFI
A group of three French officers, working class Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin), nouveau riche Jew Rosenthal (Dalio), and aristocrat Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) are detained in a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. The German commander of the Wintersborn POW camp Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) takes a special interest in his new arrivals, particularly Capt. de Boeldieu who shares with him a similar background and social rank. When Marechal and Rosenthal plot their escape from Wintersborn, Boeldieu decides to remain behind rather than betray Von Rauffenstein's trust. His two comrades finally do escape and find shelter in the remote farm home of a little German girl and her mother Elsa, who has been widowed by the war. A relationship develops between Marechal and Elsa, but their happiness is threatened by the chaotic war conditions around them.
Director: Jean Renoir
Producer: Albert Pinkovitch & Frank Rollmer (uncredited)
Screenplay: Charles Spaak, Jean Renoir
Cinematography: Christian Matras
Editing: Marthe Huguet, Margueritte Renoir
Set Decoration: EugEne Lourie
Original Music: Joseph Kosma
Cast: Jean Gabin (Lt. Marechal), Dita Parlo (Elsa), Pierre Fresnay (Capt. de Boeldieu), Erich von Stroheim (Capt. von Rauffenstein), Julien Carette (The Showoff), Georges Peclet (an Officer).
Why GRAND ILLUSION is Essential
The Grand Illusion was the first foreign film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (though it lost to Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You, 1938). Also a huge success in France, the film won an award at the Venice Film Festival of 1937 for best artistic ensemble, created especially for the film. American audiences were fans as well, with President Roosevelt pronouncing "everyone who believes in democracy should see this film."
The paradoxes and complexities of the themes and character relationships in The Grand Illusion make it a very rich and touching film that transcends its place and time of origin to speak to audiences even today. It is a political work, yet it is not partisan (expressing the ideals of both sides of a conflict with equal sympathy). It is nationalistic, yet with universal appeal. Renoir had made a few films prior to this that have now come to be considered classics of world cinema, but up to this time he had not had a great international success. The Grand Illusion finally brought him recognition as a major film artist, and it continues to be high on the various lists compiled from time to time of the best films ever made. Nevertheless, it was initially difficult to find a producer for the movie and it was shopped around for three years before actor Jean Gabin was finally able to raise financing for it because of his popularity.
There have been many notions put forth over the exact meaning of the title of The Grand Illusion. Some say it was a vestige of a scene left out of the final version that suggested the bonds formed during the war could not outlast the conflict. Others see it as the illusion of liberty behind every attempt to escape or of lasting peace expressed in the hope that this will truly be "The War to End All Wars." Renoir himself said he chose the title only because he did not want to say anything more precise. Perhaps the most satisfying analysis, and a very good statement of the power and beauty of this pacifist, humanist film, came from French cinema theorist Andre Bazin in his book Jean Renoir (Simon & Schuster, 1973): "Grand illusions are the dreams which help men to live...but more than this, the grand illusions are the illusion of hatred, which arbitrarily divides men who are in reality not separated by anything; the illusion of boundaries, with the wars which result from them; the illusion of races, of social classes...The war, the product of hatred and division, paradoxically reveals the falseness of all barriers of prejudice separating man from man."
The Grand Illusion was banned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels and the Germans destroyed prints of the film save one negative, unearthed by American troops in Munich in 1945. Enhancing the veracity and the globalist message of the film, Renoir had all of the actors speak in their native language. The son of Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, Renoir further demonstrated his artful realism with the use of exterior locations to add realism and long takes to allow scenes to unfold uninterrupted by jarring cutting. Critic Andre Bazin remarked that Renoir could "reveal the hidden meaning in people and things without disturbing the natural unity to them."
Von Stroheim, one of the great misunderstood and unappreciated geniuses of American film history (many objected to his very European sensibility with his realistic approach to sex and marriage) was an acknowledged influence on Renoir's work and greatly admired by the French who awarded him the Legion of Honor. He was so welcome a member of the cast, Renoir allowed him to make essential additions to Von Rauffenstein's costume and to greatly expand his role in the film. To bolster an initially more limited role in which the actor appeared only in the first half of The Grand Illusion, Von Stroheim was allowed to add Von Rauffenstein to the second half of the drama at the Wintersborn prison camp, which in turn added a poetic dimension to the film, particularly in the relationship between De Boeldieu and Von Rauffenstein. Von Stroheim remarked "I have never found a more sympathetic, understanding and artistic director and friend than Jean Renoir."
Beyond the warm human exploration of themes and ideas, Renoir's style, at once poetic and grounded in detailed realism, is evident in every frame of The Grand Illusion. In order to amplify the connections between characters and their place in history and each other's lives, the director frequently uses long takes and compositions that include much of the surroundings. Rather than breaking scenes up with close-ups and cross-cutting, Renoir preserves dramatic unity with extended takes, allowing his camera, whether gliding through the action or locked in place to catch characters and events moving in and out of frame; he discovers nuances of events and experiences through spatial and emotional relationships. And in his attention to seemingly tiny but telling details - the German officer's cutting of the geranium after the French officer's death, the rapt silence and attention of the prisoners when one dons women's clothing for a variety show - Renoir infuses the most realistic scene with an imagination and poetry that have earned him his place as one of the handful of truly great geniuses in the history of cinema.
by Rob Nixon & Felicia Feaster
Grand Illusion (1937)
Pop Culture 101 - GRAND ILLUSION
The Grand Illusion (1937) did not divide France's political factions as much as Renoir's other works did (or as La Regle du jeu/Rules of the Games, 1939, would). It was highly praised by France's leftists. Right-wing newspapers in France were reserved in their praise for the film but amazed to note that an artist whose left-wing politics they considered detestable and dangerous had made a film with grand national themes that appealed to audiences of all political persuasions. However, they then went so far as to suggest Renoir must have stolen his ideas from a writer more in line with their beliefs.
We know a great deal about the genesis of the script because after the movie's premiere, Renoir was accused of plagiarism by Jean des Vallieres, author of Kavalier Scharnhorst, a 1931 book about his experiences in and escapes from a German fortress the author claimed, among other things, was too similar to the setting of the film. Renoir answered each of Vallieres' accusations in minute detail, noting all the sources from which he and Spaak had drawn and the fact that so many of the stories shared enough close similarities to make a charge of plagiarism ludicrous. He admitted to having glanced at Kavalier Scharnhorst, again on the recommendation of the League of Escapees, but only to confirm certain aspects of the already-completed story. Renoir rejected much of the book because of its "hateful" tone, "written in a spirit of mean and narrow-minded nationalism" in stark contrast to his aim to make a film of deep humanism "which, by its being totally national, would be absolutely international." Renoir went on to further assert that much of the push behind the plagiarism charge came from the right-wing press, who had always hated him and his work. He said they were "only too happy...to prove that an author classified as left-wing can't produce a national subject without stealing it from them."
Jean Renoir said that prior to making his first film, he was heavily influenced by repeated viewings of Foolish Wives (1922), directed by Erich von Stroheim, who was cast in The Grand Illusion and greatly influenced the development of the character he played.
The Grand Illusion has been issued in other versions since its 1937 premiere. Although the concerns were baseless, several cuts were made in a 1946 French reissue to avoid criticism that the original was too kind to Germans and even that it displayed anti-Semitism.
At the end of a screening at UCLA in 1951, Renoir marched angrily to the stage to address the audience. The cause of his irritation was a change in the subtitles. When Gabin and Dalio part at the end of the film, Gabin says affectionately, "Au revoir, sale Juif," which translates as "So long, filthy Jew," a mocking reference to their earlier antagonism and an irony in light of their bond. The subtitle in the American version, however, read, "Goodbye, old pal."
In the early 1950s, Renoir tried very hard to get his hands on a copy of the original version of The Grand Illusion. In 1957, he wrote a friend about a man in Los Angeles who claimed to have one but who told Renoir it was lost. "I am sure he is renting it out to clubs and schools on the sly, and pockets the money," Renoir wrote. Another exhibitor who had a print promised to return it to Renoir after one last showing at his cinema. He later claimed to have given it to the director, although Renoir insisted that never happened.
The various prints of The Grand Illusion that were circulating, many of them butchered, led Renoir and screenwriter Charles Spaak to buy back the commercial rights with the intention of showing it in its original form. They finally found a negative that had been seized by the Germans and recovered by Americans in Munich. Renoir asked Von Stroheim to re-record some lines in the key scene where he shoots Boeldieu. The actor gamely agreed, even though he was dying of spinal cancer and requested a sound recording expert be brought to his bedside. Von Stroheim did not live long enough to see the triumphant reissue of the movie in its original form in 1958.
The character of the aristocratic Boeldieu seems to reference other Renoir works. The name itself can be seen as a variant of Bois le Dieu (God of the Woods), a favorite archetype of the director's. The figure appears in one form or another in such Renoir films as La Fille de l'eau (1925) and Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1959). The faun-like creature is associated with the playing of the flute, which Boeldieu does in The Grand Illusion to help the other prisoners escape, echoing a scene from Boudu sauve des eaux/Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932).
Similarities have been noted between this film and Renoir's masterpiece La Regle du jeu (1939). Both have similar four-part structures with a climactic scene at the end of part two and the major climactic moment at the end of the third part, followed by a quieter, more intimate final section in which the action moves outdoors into the countryside.
The singing of the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise," as a gesture of defiance toward the Germans was also used in Casablanca (1942).
The digging of the escape tunnel, down to the details of how it is done (the prisoners hide the excavated dirt in their pants and shake it out on the parade ground during exercise), was used in the World War II POW movie The Great Escape (1963).
Although The Grand Illusion was never remade, one of his last works, Le Caporal epingle/The Elusive Corporal (1962) was a comedy that returned to similar setting, themes and characters (French soldiers attempting to escape German POW camps, this time in World War II). Other Renoir works, however, have been given new versions: La Chienne (1931) was redone by Fritz Lang as Scarlet Street (1945); Boudu sauve des eaux became Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986); La Bte humaine (1938) was the basis for Lang's film noir Human Desire (1954); and La Regle du jeu is said to have inspired Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989).
After seeing Dita Parlo as the German widow in this picture, Orson Welles wanted to cast her in his planned (but never made) film version of Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness. But shortly after the outbreak of World War II, Parlo (who was born in a then German region that is now part of Poland) was arrested as an alien and deported to Germany. She returned to France and resumed her career in 1950.
by Rob Nixon
Grand Illusion (1937)
Trivia & Other Fun Stuff
Jean Renoir was the son of the famous and highly influential French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). The director wrote a loving biography of the elder artist, Renoir, My Father, published in 1962.
Besides such notable French productions as Boudu sauve des eaux (1932), Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), La Bete humaine (1938), and La Regle du jeu (1939) - generally considered his greatest film - Renoir also worked in Hollywood during and shortly after World War II. He directed seven films between 1941 and 1947, among them Swamp Water (1941), The Southerner (1945), and the thriller The Woman on the Beach (1947).
"Excepting All Quiet on the Western Front , I had not seen a single film giving a true picture of the men who did the fighting," said director Jean Renoir who made every effort to bring that perspective to his film The Grand Illusion (1937).
"Introducing his film to the American public in 1948, Renoir wrote, "I hear Hitler yelling on the radio, demanding the partition of Czechoslovakia. We are on the brink of another 'Grand Illusion.' I made this film because I am a pacifist. To me, a true pacifist is a Frenchman, a German, an American. The day will come when men of good faith will find a common meeting ground. Cynics will say that my words at this point in time are naive. But why not?" - Jean Renoir (from Dictionary of Films by Georges Saduol)
Renoir was given an honorary Academy Award in 1975 for his body of work. He was also nominated as Best Director for The Southerner, a film that won him the National Board of Review directing award. The National Society of Film Critics also gave him a special award the same year as his honorary Oscar.
Jean Gabin is generally considered France's greatest star. His career ran from 1928 through 1976 (the year of his death) and included such international classics as Pepe le Moko (1937), Le Quai des brumes (1938), Le Jour se leve (1939), Le Plaisir (1952), and Les Miserables (1958). He made three other films with Renoir: Les Bas-fonds (1936), La Bete humaine, and French Cancan (1955).
It was also generally well received abroad. The movie was a huge success in the U.S. and received much wider distribution throughout the country than other foreign films of the time. It played 15 weeks at a major first-run house (as opposed to an "art cinema") in New York.
It would probably have won the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1937 if a democratic, pacifist film were not an unlikely choice for what was then called the Mussolini Award, after Italy's fascist dictator. Instead, jurors created a special "best artistic ensemble" prize for it. Nevertheless, it was banned in Italy as well as Germany, where Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels declared Renoir "Cinematographic Enemy Number One" and had the prints seized (although a negative turned up in Germany years later, allowing Renoir to re-release the film in its original form in the late 50s). Goebbels also called Von Stroheim's performance of a German military man "a caricature" and insisted "No German officer is like that."
This was one of four French films banned in 1937 by Yugoslav censors.
Erich von Stroheim claimed to be a German aristocrat with a distinguished military career. Some mystery still surrounds his background, but by most accounts he was, in fact, the son of an Austrian Jewish hatmaker and spent only three months in the Austro-Hungarian army.
Von Stroheim had a notable acting career in the U.S. during the silent era as "the man you love to hate," a moniker owing much to his roles as evil Germans in World War I films. After the war he played leads in a number of notable pictures. He was also a brilliant director whose masterpiece, Greed (1924), was taken over by the studio and cut from its original four-hour length to just over two hours (the director's cut has since been essentially restored). He was fired by producer-star Gloria Swanson from his last silent film, Queen Kelly (1929), effectively ending his directing career. He continued working as a writer and acted in many films over the next nearly 30 years, though rarely with the success or acclaim of either his silent work or his performance in The Grand Illusion. He is perhaps best remembered today as Max, the ex-director, now butler to a forgotten silent film star played by Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Several members of this picture's cast worked frequently with Renoir, including Marcel Dalio, Jean Daste, and Gaston Modot. Dalio, who plays the Jewish character, Rosenthal, was himself a Jew, born in Paris to Romanian immigrants. At the outbreak of the war, his pictures appeared on posters depicting "the typical Jew," and he was forced to flee Europe. He subsequently had small roles, usually as the stereotypical Frenchman, in dozens of Hollywood films, including Casablanca (1942) and The Song of Bernadette (1943). Although he returned to European films after the war, he also continued to work in the U.S. in such movies as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Can-Can (1960), and Catch-22 (1970). He also played Captain Renaud in a short-lived TV series based on Casablanca.
Dita Parlo, who plays Elsa, the German widow, in this picture, and Jean Daste (the teacher), appeared as the lovers in Jean Vigo's poetic love story L'Atalante (1934).
Screenwriter Charles Spaak's daughters, Catherine and Agnes, both became actresses with notable European careers. Of the two, Catherine is probably better known to American audiences for her work in Jacques Becker's Le Trou (1960), The Empty Canvas (1963) co-starring Bette Davis, and the Dario Argento giallo, The Cat 'O Nine Tails (1971).
Assistant director Jacques Becker, who worked frequently with close friend Renoir in the 1930s, appears as the English officer who begins singing "La Marseillaise" in this film. Becker was himself a POW during World War II. After the war, he became a director of several films, most notably the prison escape drama Le Trou.
One of the editors on this film was Renoir's companion, Marguerite Renoir. (Although she had taken his name, they were not yet married at the time). She had begun working with him on La Chienne (1931), at the time he separated from his wife, actress Catherine Hessling. Jean and Marguerite married in 1944, although his 1943 divorce from Hessling was not officially recognized in Europe.
Renoir's nephew Claude was the camera operator on The Grand Illusion. He went on to become a noted cinematographer, working on a number of his uncle's pictures, including the luminous color work of The River (1951). He also contributed to international productions in a wide range of styles, such as Barbarella (1968), French Connection II (1975), and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).
Charles Spaak was, along with Jacques Prevert, arguably the most influential French screenwriter of his time, contributing heavily to the "poetic realism" of films by Renoir, Julien Duvivier, and Jacques Feyder.
Art Director Eugene Lourie was a leader in his field in the 1930s. He followed Renoir to the U.S. during the war and worked on not only the director's pictures but those of other filmmakers, including Chaplin's Limelight (1952), Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964), and Clint Eastwood's Bronco Billy (1980). He also played a small part in Breathless (1983), a remake of the 1960 Jean-Luc Godard film.
Famous Quotes from GRAND ILLUSION:
SIGN IN MILITARY BAR: Alcohol kills! Alcohol drives people mad. The squadron leader drinks it!
MARECHAL (Jean Gabin): (being searched by prison guard) I've nothing. If I'd known I was coming I'd have brought a little money with me.
MARECHAL: The theater's too deep for me. I prefer bicycling.
SERVANT: May I bring it to your attention, sir, we only have two pair of white gloves left.
VON RAUFFENSTEIN (Erich von Stroheim): We can't get any more now. Try to make these last out the war.
VON RAUFFENSTEIN: (in French to Marechal) I suppose you know the Maxim machine gun?
MARECHAL: (pointing to where he was wounded) Very well, sir. Personally, I prefer the restaurant.
VON RAUFFENSTEIN: (in English to Boeldieu) Maxims. That reminds me. I used to know a girl there in 1913. Her name was Fifi.
BOELDIEU (Pierre Fresnay): So did I.
MARECHAL: It's usually the clap that gets the posh people, right, Boeldieu?
BOELDIEU: It used to be a privilege of class but it, like everything else, has been lost to the masses.
ROSENTHAL (Marcel Dalio): Each would die of his class disease if there weren't war to mix microbes.
VON RAUFFENSTEIN: The end of the war will be the end of the Boeldieus and the Rauffensteins.
VON RAUFFENSTEIN: A Marechal and a Rosenthal, officers?
BOELDIEU: They're very good soldiers.
VON RAUFFENSTEIN: Happy gifts of the French Revolution.
BOELDIEU: I think we can do nothing to stop the march of time.
ROSENTHAL: I'm very proud of my rich family. When I invite you to my table, it's easy to show it.
BOELDIEU: I didn't know a bullet in the stomach hurt so much.
VON RAUFFENSTEIN: I aimed at your legs.
BOELDIEU (to von Rauffenstein): For a common man, it's terrible to die in a war. For me and you, it's a good solution.
ROSENTHAL: Frontiers are an invention of men. Nature doesn't give a hoot.
ROSENTHAL: Have you been eating your buttons?
MARECHAL: Can't you see they're missing?
MARECHAL: (to a cow) You were born in Wirtemberg, I was born in Paris, but that doesn't stop us from being pals. You're a poor cow, I'm a poor soldier. We do our best, true?
MARECHAL: We have to finish the war. Let's hope it's the last.
ROSENTHAL: An illusion. Back to reality.
Compiled by Rob Nixon
Grand Illusion (1937)
The Big Idea Behind GRAND ILLUSION
Renoir said the idea for doing The Grand Illusion (1937) came about in 1934 when he reconnected with an old friend, Pinsard, who had become the commander of an air base near where Renoir was shooting Toni (1935). He recalled that Pinsard had several stories of escaping from German POW camps during World War I and thought they might make an interesting film. He got Pinsard to retell his tales, wrote them down, talked with other men who had been war prisoners, and recalled incidents from his own experiences in the cavalry and as a reconnaissance pilot. During that time, Renoir had also been a captive for three weeks during the Battle of the Marne. From all this he fashioned a scenario entitled "Les Evasions de Capitaine Marechal," but he wasn't satisfied with it and put it aside while he went on to make other movies. "I am no good with a new idea," Renoir later explained. "I have to carry it for years."
Later, Renoir raised the idea with Charles Spaak, his collaborator on the screen adaptation of Gorky's The Lower Depths/Les Bas-fonds (1936). Spaak added information he gathered from his brother, the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who also spent time in POW camps during the war. They also worked in material from the memoirs of several other participants in the Great War, even German flying ace Von Richthofen (the famous Red Baron). They had much of their work verified by the League of Escapees, a group of men who had escaped from POW camps in the war and who recommended to the film's creators to use the book My Ten Escapes by Lt. Bastin to verify details. They also had the assistance of Carl Koch, a former lieutenant in the German Army, who supplied many details about the German military and continued to serve as technical adviser throughout the shooting and editing of the film.
Renoir said his collaboration with Spaak was "smooth and without incident. The ties of our friendship were reinforced by our common faith in the equality and fraternity of men." Although much of the script changed after Spaak's contribution, he has been credited with bringing a strong dramatic structure and character delineation to the project. Spaak did not take part in the filming itself. When he saw the final cut, the story had changed so much he claimed not to recognize it and suggested he should not even get credit for it, but Renoir left his name in the titles as co-writer.
Spaak and Renoir were happy with where the story had gone, and showed it to Jean Gabin, then France's major star, who was working with them on Le Bas-fonds. Gabin liked the script (and the role of Marechal offered to him) and got behind it completely. , "If it weren't for Gabin, I could never have made La Grande Illusion," Renoir later admitted. Gabin took it first to the producer of Les Bas-fonds, who was unable to get backers. Then Gabin and Renoir beat down the doors of every producer - French, American, Italian - they could contact, but they all refused, citing lack of interest in war stories and insisting the issues raised by the film were "too delicate." The latter objection was probably due to the fact that relations with Germany were beginning to reach a crucial conflict point. Finally they found people outside the film industry to produce it, a man named Albert Pinkovitch and the financier he worked for, Frank Rollmer, who was interested in working in motion pictures. They made the picture, Renoir said, simply because they were not in the business. "All the professionals were sure it couldn't be a success," he explained.
The script of The Grand Illusion underwent several changes along the way. A significant part of the evolution occurred during production itself; Renoir liked to leave room for improvisation and actor contributions, and once Erich von Stroheim was cast, large sections of the story were given a new focus. But an important reason for the changes at this stage was that Renoir came to realize he was no longer interested in simply making a movie about POW escapes. For one thing, he wanted an approach that was different from the typical war movie, with its "dreary clichs" and "us vs. them" mindset. "Excepting All Quite on the Western Front , I had not seen a single film giving a true picture of the men who did the fighting," he explained. "Either the drama never got out of the mud, which was an exaggeration, or else the war was made into a kind of operetta with cardboard heroes."
Renoir also had no wish to depict the suffering of the infantry. His chief aim was the same as he had been pursuing since starting to make films - to express the common humanity of all people and the way they intersect and interact in unusual social or historical situations. What had started as an adventure story became, he said, "simply a cry, the affirmation of a conviction. I had the desire to show that even in wartime the combatants can remain men."
A scene in an early treatment of The Grand Illusion but not included in the final shooting script helped clarify the meaning of the title. Marechal and a fellow prisoner, Dolette (who later evolved into the Jewish character Rosenthal), escape and reach safety in Switzerland. They agree to celebrate the first Christmas Eve after the war together at the famous Maxim's restaurant in Paris. The final shot in this version was to have been set in post-war Paris at Maxim's, crowded with Christmas revelers except for an empty table awaiting the two men who never show up. In light of a world heading toward another cataclysmic war, it was a more downbeat ending that suggested that the bond between these two men could not outlast the war. Instead, Renoir opted for a more hopeful resolution, one that opted for pacifism while emphasizing the humanity of every character.
by Rob Nixon
Grand Illusion (1937)
Behind the Camera on GRAND ILLUSION
Before the producers agreed to finance The Grand Illusion (1937), they questioned every expense including a stipulation in the script for the use of genuine silver dinner service. Renoir had to agree to make do with silver plate.
Renoir also had to abandon the idea of filming numerous planned shots of planes, airfields, and aerial combat (in the final film, we simply see characters leaving a room to go off on a flying mission, and later entering a room after being shot down and captured). The producers said they could not acquire the necessary planes but were also relieved to avoid a major expense. Renoir was furious at first but later considered it a fortunate accident, realizing his film worked much better without this footage.
Principal photography on The Grand Illusion began in winter 1936. Because shooting in Nazi Germany was out of the question, exteriors were done in the Alsace, the easternmost region of France, which retains a rather German character (and had been under German rule on and off, most recently from the late 19th century until World War I). The prisoners' quarters were actually military barracks that had been constructed by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, who also built the chateau that doubled for the final fortress prison.
Somewhere between early scripting and production, the character of Dolette developed into the wealthy Jewish character Rosenthal, which gave Renoir the opportunity of not only joining race and ethnicity to the examination of class themes but, with Rosenthal written as a middle-class character, of adding nuance to the dichotomy between the working-class Marechal and the aristocratic De Boeldieu. The character was made more complex with the help of producer Pinkovitch, who was Jewish and frequently offered suggestions for building the role into a plum part for Jewish actor Marcel Dalio.
The biggest shift in the story came about after Erich von Stroheim was cast. The actor-director-writer had recently returned to Europe in an effort to salvage his fading career. Various stories exist about how he came to be cast and what role he was originally offered, but what is clear is that Von Stroheim suggested he play both the gracious, aristocratic captor who first receives Marechal and Boeldieu as prisoners and the commandant of the fortress prison where they end up. Struggling through language barriers (each spoke different degrees of French, German and English), a collaboration between director and actor grew, combining both roles into one and enriching Von Rauffenstein from a sketchy character in the script into one who played a pivotal part in the film's themes of class differences, bonds stretching across borders, and the death-knell of the old aristocracy.
Von Stroheim, who had influenced Renoir as a young filmmaker, was encouraged to write whole segments of his own dialogue. He helped create a relationship with the other aristocratic character, De Boeldieu, making it more complex and full and adding greatly to the exploration of the film's themes. He was also in synch with the director in their intention not to make the character a retread of the stereotypical "Horrible Hun" that Stroheim had played in American war films produced in World War I.
Von Stroheim also gave Von Rauffenstein his physical dimensions, creating a backstory in which, between the character's first and second appearances, he has been shot down and now exists in a painful and rigid orthopedic apparatus due to a broken back and constantly wears white gloves to conceal burns. An orthopedist had to be found in Colmar, a city near where they were shooting, to create the device in just a few days.
Von Stroheim's contributions extended to the look of the officer's uniform and the decor of his fortress chambers: the Gothic bed, the solitary geranium in the window that came to figure so prominently in his relationship with Boeldieu. Renoir did not accept all his suggestions; he nixed the idea of covering the chambers in black crepe. But by and large, theirs was a very productive collaboration that gave new shape and meaning to the film.
The working relationship between Von Stroheim and the crew was not always smooth. He quarreled furiously with technical adviser Carl Koch over the uniform worn by the army nurse. Fueled by too much wine, the argument escalated into vicious insults and the throwing of wine glasses before the two men were calmed.
Von Stroheim also clashed with Renoir in the early days of shooting, and the director later said the actor "behaved intolerably." They had one argument over whether or not there should be prostitutes in the German quarters, a detail Von Stroheim thought would lend greater authenticity but which Renoir rejected as a childish cliche. The dispute so distressed Renoir he burst into tears, which caused Von Stroheim to do the same. They fell into each other's arms, and Renoir said that rather than quarrel with an artist he so greatly admired, he would give up directing the film altogether. Von Stroheim promised from that point on to follow Renoir's instructions to the letter, and he kept his word. Looking back on the production, the actor said, "I have never found a more sympathetic, understanding and artistic director and friend than Jean Renoir."
Renoir had no problems at all with Jean Gabin. "There you have a true film actor - with a capital F," he later said. "I've filmed many people in my life, and I have never met such a cinematic power; he's a cinematic force, it's fantastic, it's incredible. It must come from his great honesty. He's certainly the most honest man I've ever met in my life."
On The Grand Illusion and all his films, Renoir worked very collaboratively with everyone, readily accepting suggestions from cast and crew and frequently improvising scenes to achieve a great sense of spontaneity.
Being an actor himself, Renoir also knew how to get the best performances from his cast. When Boeldieu creates a diversion to allow his fellow inmates to escape, Renoir told Von Stroheim to shout to him in English, "I beg you, man to man, come back," in a way that would sound like a man pleading with his mistress.
Renoir achieved not only authenticity but an effective element in the theme of class and national boundaries by having the characters speak in their own languages (with subtitles). This was further heightened by the use of occasional English in dialogue between De Boeldieu and Von Rauffenstein, setting them apart from the other characters in their education and sophistication.
In certain interior scenes, Renoir was able to keep his camera moving by having movable partial sets constructed in the courtyard of the actual barracks used on location. He did this to avoid destroying the continuity of a scene through editing. This also allowed him to shoot his actors "indoors" while showing the bustle of the camp outside the window.
Although they were fully behind the production, the producers got nervous as shooting progressed and told Renoir they had grave doubts about continuing with the production. So he halted photography long enough to edit some scenes that had already been shot, hoping to change their mind, and luckily, he succeeded.
The script changed so much during shooting, Renoir found himself at a loss for how to end the picture. He finally decided on the last scene when exterior work was almost completed.
by Rob Nixon
Grand Illusion (1937)
The Critics' Corner on GRAND ILLUSION
The Grand Illusion was an immediate success with audiences in France and Renoir's most successful release up to that time. Most critics were enthusiastic about the film on its release, making it unique among Renoir's works. Most of his films had been panned or, at best, received mixed reviews.
"Everyone who believes in Democracy should see this film." - President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1938
The Grand Illusion tied for fourth in the 1952 list of Best Films of All Time by the Cinematheque Belgique. In 1958, on the occasion of the Brussel's World's Fair, 177 film historians from 26 countries chose the 12 best films of all time; The Grand Illusion placed fifth. And the 1983 British Film Institute 50th anniversary poll of its 1200 members ranked this movie number 14 of the best films of all time.
"How has The Grand Illusion held up over the years? It is not enough to say that it has retained its power. Not only has the stature of the film remained undiminished by the passage of time (except in a few minor details), but the innovation, the audacity, and, for want of a better word, the modernity of the direction have acquired an even greater impact." - Andre Bazin, Jean Renoir (Simon & Schuster, 1973)
"It is one of the true masterpieces of the screen. ... The performances of Von Stroheim, Fresnay and Gabin are in three different styles of acting, and they illuminate one another. With Gabin, you are not aware of any performance; with Von Stroheim and Fresnay, you are - and you should be: they represent a way of life that is dedicated to superbly controlled outer appearances." - Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (Henry Holt and Co., 1982)
"With no real combat scene, only a single death, and its fragile humanist heart sewn on its sleeve, there's never been a war film of the intimate magnitude of Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion." - Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner, December 3, 1999
"The Grand Illusion, often cited as an enigmatic title, is surely not that peace can ever be permanent, but that liberty, equality and fraternity is ever likely to become a social reality rather than a token ideal." - Tom Milne, TimeOut Film Guide
"Jean Renoir's heartfelt cry for an end to wars, which are casually undertaken at the expense of the natural bond among all men." - Danny Peary, Guide For the Film Fanatic
"La Grande Illusion is much too complex to be reduced to a thesis film, and although an anti-war statement can certainly be read from it (Renoir's detestation of war is not in doubt), that is incidental rather than essential to the film's meaning...If the film celebrates the possibility of demolishing boundaries, it also acknowledges, with the existing social system, their inevitability." - Robin Wood, The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers
"With the passing years, La Grande Illusion has acquired a certain quaintness, a stylized nostalgia that enhances the warmth of its sentiments, the courage of its faith in human friendship." - Peter Cowie, Eighty Years of Cinema
"The French picture, The Grand Illusion, is a war story without any war in it, and one so simply, and at times crudely, told that you might think it had been produced back in the old silent movie days. The very fact that it has no great airplane battles, that is has no huge so-called production sequences, only adds to the great power and tragedy you will find in the picture." - Pare Lorentz, McCall's, December 1938
"Celebrated mood piece with much to say about war and mankind; more precisely, it is impeccably acted and directed and has real tragic force." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide.
Awards & Honors
The Grand Illusion (1937) was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture, the first foreign language film to be so honored.
The Grand Illusion received Best Foreign Film awards from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle.
by Rob Nixon
Grand Illusion (1937)
"Excepting All Quiet on the Western Front , I had not seen a single film giving a true picture of the men who did the fighting," said director Jean Renoir who made every effort to bring that perspective to his film Grand Illusion (1937).
Renoir's masterpiece Grand Illusion is about the human beings behind the enormous national conflicts of war. The film follows a group of three French officers, working class Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin), nouveau riche Jew Rosenthal (Dalio) and aristocrat Capt. de Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay) detained in a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. Renoir examines the fierce bonds that unite the captive French soldiers, even beyond class lines. But perhaps most surprisingly, he highlights the kindness and dignity that develops between these prisoners and their captors, specifically the relationship between the aristocratic German commander of the Wintersborn POW camp Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), and the well-born Boieldieu. When Marechal and Rosenthal plot their escape from Wintersborn, Boieldieu is unable to join them. Bound by unspoken rules of etiquette and gentlemanly conduct, he decides to remain behind rather than betray Von Rauffenstein's trust.
When Marechal and Rosenthal finally do escape, they find shelter in the remote farm home of a little German girl and her mother Elsa (Dita Parlo, star of L'Atalante, 1934), who has been widowed by the war and lost her brothers in battle. A relationship develops between Marechal and Elsa, but as it does so often in Renoir's film, war inevitably comes between the couple.
Though Renoir's powerful film has become a highly regarded film classic, it was initially difficult to find a producer. The film was shopped around for three years before Gabin was finally able to get it produced.
Grand Illusion was banned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels and the Germans destroyed prints of the film save one negative, unearthed by American troops in Munich in 1945. Enhancing the veracity and the globalist message of the film, Renoir had all of the actors speak in their native language. The son of Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, Renoir further demonstrated his artful realism with the use of exterior locations to add realism and long takes to allow scenes to unfold uninterrupted by jarring cutting. Critic Andre Bazin remarked that Renoir could "reveal the hidden meaning in people and things without disturbing the natural unity to them."
Grand Illusion was the first foreign film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (though it lost to Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You (1938). Also a huge success in France, the film won an award at the Venice Film Festival of 1937 for best artistic ensemble, created especially for the film. The Americans were fans as well, with President Roosevelt pronouncing "everyone who believes in democracy should see this film."
Von Stroheim, one of the great misunderstood and unappreciated geniuses of American film history (many objected to his very European sensibility with his realistic approach to sex and marriage) was an acknowledged influence on Renoir's work and greatly admired by the French who awarded him the Legion of Honor. He was so welcome a member of the cast, Renoir allowed him to make essential additions to Rauffenstein's costume and to greatly expand his role in the film. To bolster an initially more limited role in which the actor appeared only in the first half of Grand Illusion, Von Stroheim was allowed to add Rauffenstein to the second half of the drama at the Wintersborn prison camp, which in turn added a poetic dimension to the film, particularly in the relationship between Boieldieu and Rauffenstein. Von Stroheim remarked "I have never found a more sympathetic, understanding and artistic director and friend than Jean Renoir."
Producer: Albert Pinkovitch, Frank Rollmer
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir, Charles Spaak
Cinematography: Christian Matras
Film Editing: Marthe Huguet, Renee Lichtig, Marguerite Renoir
Art Direction: Eugene Lourie
Music: Joesph Kosma
Cast: Jean Gabin (Lt. Marechal), Dita Parlo (Elsa), Pierre Fresnay (Capt. De Boieldieu), Erich von Stroheim (Capt. von Rauffenstein), Julien Carette (The Showoff), Georges Peclet (an Officer).
by Felicia Feaster