‘Escape for the fun of it’: atypical vision of war in Jean Renoirs La Grande Illusion

Cinematekene er et samarbeid om felles digitale visninger på cinematekene i Bergen, Kristiansand, Lillehammer, Oslo, Stavanger, Tromsø og Trondheim. Montages setter gjennom ukentlige artikler fokus på filmene i utvalget. Jean Renoirs klassiker La Grande Illusion (1937) vises fra og med torsdag 2. september – sjekk tidspunkter i oversikten hos ditt cinematek.

Gabrielė Liepa (b. in 1993) is a film & literature graduate from Amsterdam University College. Gabrielė’s interests include literary and film history, and art films of the Cold War era.


Few films in world cinema history owe their existence to as many unlikely coincidences as Jean Renoir’s celebrated La Grande Illusion (1938). In fact, its story and survival may be said to be nothing short of a miracle.

While serving in the Flying Corps in WW1, Renoir was once saved from a German fighter plane by another French pilot—an ace Captain (later General) Armand Pinsard. The two befriended each other, but, alas, war separated them and they lost contact. Much later, in 1934, while shooting a film in the south of France, Renoir’s work was interrupted by flying airplanes; it turned out they were commanded by none other than Pinsard himself. Friends reunited, Renoir decided to make a film based on Pinsard’s war experiences; his escape from German captivity is the basis for La Grande Illusion.

Although it is considered to be one of the great anti-war films, it distinctively lacks depictions of battle, bloodshed or other visceral horrors you’d expect. What La Grande Illusion has, instead, is humour, subtlety and sympathy; a little bit of singing, too. In fact, it is a film so subdued that the New York Times proclaimed in 1938 that “it serves to warn the British that they no longer have a monopoly upon that valuable dramatic device known as understatement.” Indeed. Renoir made a film that celebrated humanity without much didacticism, all the while correctly suspecting its message would fail and be drowned out by the fanfares of war. His vision of humanity in La Grande Illusion, including its shortcomings, is still worth clinging to.

The film opens with a scene in an officers’ mess, in which working class Lieutenant Maréchal, played with spectacular ease by Jean Gabin clad in Renoir’s own original Flying Corps uniform, hums to a salacious tune. Unsurprisingly, the very first thing we learn about him is that he’s a bit of a playboy, which will stand in contrast to his counterpart, stubbornly formal aristocrat Captain de Boëldieu (Pierre Fresnay). Characters’ class differences loom over the storyline, although every personage in the film is so memorable they never feel reduced to mere types, no matter which side they are fighting for.

The first few lines of dialogue already succeed in establishing a jovial mood, as other officers exchange banter with Maréchal over his infatuations; this atmosphere, so unlike the grimness of war, will prevail for most of La Grande Illusion, even as the severity of the characters’ ordeal continuously simmers under the story’s surface. Renoir is a champion of understatement: that he successfully maneuvered subtle film techniques to make such a grand impact is a case in pure cinema mastery.

In the mess, you would be forgiven to forget these men were at war, while the camera effortlessly waltzes around the room in Renoir’s signature style of camera movement and continuity-over-editing: the place reminds one of a provincial café or a bar, were it not for the uniforms. Maréchal’s tryst, alas, is interrupted by war: he and de Boëldieu must go on an insignificant aerial reconnaissance mission, a task that will seal their fate and lead them to a POW camp.

The next scene is oddly familiar: a similar officers’ mess, only the officers speak German. Enter Erich von Stroheim in his legendary performance of Captain von Rauffenstein, yet another aristocrat stuck in a waning worldview of his class, a man behind of his time. He announces to have shot down a French aircraft, and that the future prisoners should be invited for lunch, provided that they, too, are officers. The occasion calls for a homemade fruit punch. It is a slightly disorienting experience for the viewer: what a surprising emphasis on courtesy… peculiar though it is, considering the circumstances in which the French come into such hospitality. Although the war to end all wars is the film’s setting, what interests Renoir are the nuances of the relationships between his characters, not the human cost of war, which one would expect from a more direct pacifist film.

It is this total absence of stereotype that achieves a lasting impact of La Grande Illusion: these men’s preoccupations differ little from each other (as the camera cheekily reminds us of when it pans to reveal girlie pictures on the German mess wall). The ensuing lunch is endearingly farcical: von Rauffenstein apologises about Maréchal’s injured arm and proclaims it an honour to have French guests. This oddly amicable reception, however, does not for a moment feel ironic; Renoir manages to balance out humour and sheer bizarreness of the scene in a way that all appears to be perfectly natural.

It is worth noting he was consciously working against clichés of the German officers plaguing the cinema of the day, naturally rife with hostile sentiment: a task on which he extensively collaborated with von Stroheim. It is Renoir’s willingness to work with his cast and crew in fleshing out all the characters in the film that gives it the sincerity and energy that is nearly impossible to match.

During the luncheon in the German mess, von Rauffenstein and de Boëldieu figure out their mutual acquaintances and frequented places in Paris; they exchange conversation in English, which sets them apart from the other officers. Class takes precedence over nationality, similar to how Maréchal makes conversation with a nearby German officer and it turns out they share an engineering profession. You would be forgiven to forget these men are supposed to eliminate each other.

Already in the first ten minutes of La Grande Illusion all major themes have been established: a strong sense that war is not something initiated by men, but something that befalls them, permeats the film. Characters’ circumstances are guided by the general arbitrariness of war, rather than unquestioning heroism.

As is later suggested in the film, the war effort is really about following the crowd and doing one’s bit with the rest, not something orchestrated by animosity or pretend lofty ideas. It was a vision of war deemed dangerous enough to be banned not only in Italy and Belgium upon its release, but in France itself during the war to come, since it could hardly inspire soldiers, well, to soldier on. Rightfully so.

The suppression of the film does make sense: this disquieting vision of war is fundamentally horrific. What took for the greatest bloodshed the world had ever seen to happen, the film suggests, was for enough people to go through prescribed motions in the circumstances that forced themselves upon their lives. Joseph Goebbels proclaimed La Grande Illusion to be the “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1” and, upon the occupation of Paris in 1940, ordered for all the copies of the film to be destroyed.

While the reflections on war and its uselessness simmer underneath the storyline, La Grande Illusion directly focuses on something else entirely: while the absurdity of the prisoners’ situation seems not to bother them too much for most of the film, what helps these men get through the day is the camaraderie and care they provide for each other. Just like the absence of terror and battle, the viewer feels the absence of masculinist notions that are often, and always erroneously, attributed to the causes of war. In La Grande Illusion, a POW camp is not centered around violence or abuse of power, nor around resilience or valour, but around its powerless mundanity, which is only dispersed by a preparation for a vaudeville performance (the British prisoners turn out to be rather good at it.)

Early on in the film, while Maréchal’s injured arm is still in a cast, there is a scene in which Gaston Modot’s character is washing Maréchal’s feet while the two discuss plans for escape. I was taken aback by this scene and found this ritual oddly moving, although there is nothing particularly strange or show-offy about it. Which is precisely the point: the scene is moving because of how negligible such an effort seems, and yet it is so rare to encounter this very human vulnerability and dependence of a man exposed on screen.

Later on, when Maréchal has been thrown into a solitary cell for a pointless transgression (which will later inspire a classic scene in Casablanca), a German guard, affected by Maréchal’s turmoil, desperately tries to cheer him up. Taking care of each other is an intuitive response; the fact that these two men are on warring sides is pure chance.

Even if the film is, well, at least arguably about breaking out of the POW camp system (with a plan that will also later inspire The Great Escape), it seems that the prisoners are in for it out of sheer boredom. Renoir steers clear of clichés (the extent to which his own experiences in a POW camp played a part is unclear): the French prisoners live surprisingly well and eat better than their German guards, all thanks to the food parcels generously shared by the Jewish Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) who receives them from his nouveau riche family. Here is another instance in which Renoir took great care in fleshing out a character, counteracting antisemitism rife in France at the time.

It is worth noting that Renoir points to the limits of his rather rosy depiction of daily life in the camp: the unenviable situation of the Russian prisoners hovers in the background, with one particularly memorable scene of their own. Later on, he briefly turns the same critical gaze upon Maréchal who callously dismisses attempts at conversation by a black French POW. It is as if Renoir was pleading for human commonality, all the while reflecting on the brutal shortcomings of the real world and the inescapability of doom that was to fall upon it. In this regard he stayed true to the poetic realist film tradition, showing humanity in a light as naïve as it was cynical.

The story of the original print of La Grande Illusion is as tumultuous as that of its protagonists. Contrary to official orders, a Nazi officer shipped the original print to Berlin, while for most of the 20th century it was believed that that very same print had perished in an Allied air raid. After the fall of Berlin, it found its way to an archive in Moscow, where, unidentified by the Russians, it was eventually exchanged with the French and travelled back to its homeland. Only it would be another three decades until the print was identified; after all, no one suspected that the negative had, in fact, managed to survive the war.

So it is, indeed, a miracle that, nowadays, one can see La Grande Illusion in its pristine condition. All the more reasons to make the trip to the cinema.

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