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