Title: La Grande Illusion
Release Date: June 8, 1937
Director: Jean Renoir
Production Company: Réalisations d’Art Cinématographique (RAC)
I doubt Grand Illusion was the first film about prisoners of war but it seems to have been a great influence on later films like Stalag 17, Bridge Over River Kwai, and The Great Escape. Thematically, though, I found the greatest similarities are with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Both films deal with the the slow dissolution of the European aristocracy in the early 20th century and the bonds of the military elite even across enemy lines. I had no expectations going into this movie, but came away very impressed by Renoir’s camera movement and storytelling as well as the strong acting performances.
Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is a working class French officer in World War I and Captain de Boëldieu (Pierre Fresnay) is an aristocratic flying ace who is his superior. They are shot down early in the film and held as prisoners of war by the Germans. In camp, they befriend Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), who is from a nouveau riche Jewish banking family, and is generous in sharing the food sent to him so that the prisoners eat better than the guards. The three men attempt many escapes and eventually taken to Wintersborn, a German fortress with high walls that seems impossible to escape. The camp commander is Major von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), an aristocratic flying ace who actually shot down Maréchal and Boëldieu but after injuries is reassigned to prison camp duties. Rauffenstein and Boëldieu form something of a friendship based on their shared nobility, although the latter is more aware of where the winds are blowing for the aristocracy.
The final act of the film depicts Maréchal and Rosenthal receiving aid from a widowed German farmer, Elsa (Dita Parlo). Here the unity by class over nationality is replicated among the working people. This film was made on the eve of World War II and Renoir’s message of unity and commonality amongst the peoples of Europe was an optimistic vision that didn’t come to pass. By depicting German characters in a positive light, he also seemed to be sending a message to a nation under the grip of Nazism to embrace their better selves. Finally, Grand Illusion is an anti-war message at a time when one was really needed that exposed war’s promise of glory and honor as illusory.