Grand Illusion (1937): Masterpieces of World Cinema

(La Grande Illusion)
(French, Realization d’Art Cinematographique)

grand_illusion_poster“Grand Illusion,” Jean Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece of l937, is a study of human needs and the subtle barriers of class among a group of prisoners and their captors during the First World War. Few films have ever possessed a more heartbreaking and subtle sense of the divisions among people.

The two aristocrats, the German prison commander von Rauffenstein (played by Erich von Stroheim) and his prisoner, the French officer de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), share a common world of memories and sentiments. Though their class is doomed by inevitable changes, they must act out the rituals of noblesse oblige and serve a nationalism they don’t believe in. The Frenchman sacrifices his life for the kinds of men he doesn’t approve of: the plebeian Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the Jew Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio).

Jean Renoir directed this elegiac prison drama, which depicts the fading glory and honor of war and the death of the old European aristocracy. Grand Illusion is a film of multiple and exquisite ironies.One of the world’s truly great films, Orson Welles once said that if he had only one film in the world to save, it would be Grand Illusion.

The performances of von Stroheim, Fresnay, and Gabin are in three different styles, but they illuminate one another. With Gabin, one is not aware of any performance; with von Stroheim and Fresnay, one is–they represent a way of life that is dedicated to superbly controlled outer appearances.

The movie’s reputation was cinched after it was banned by Goebbels and Mussolini and praised by F.D.R.

Co-written by Charles Spaak and Jean Renoir, the music is by Kosma. The camera work is by Christian Matras and Claude Renoir.

In French, with the German and English characters speaking in their own languages.

Detailed Plot

In early 1916, a French fighter plane is shot down during a reconnaissance mission over German territory. Aboard are Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a mechanic in civilian life, and Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocratic career officer. While waiting for them to be picked up by military police, Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), the Junker who shot them down, invites them to lunch in the officer’s mess.

Transferred to the POW officers’ camp at Hallbach, Boeldieu and Maréchal are assigned to room with four fellow officers: Cartier (Julien Carette), a music hall performer; Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a wealthy Jewish couturier; a land surveyance engineer (Gaston Modot); and a provincial schoolteacher (Jean Dasté). Despite the wide difference in their backgrounds, the men get along well, united by a common desire to escape and return to the fray and sustained by the food parcels Rosenthal receives from his parents.

Their nighttime activities are devoted to digging a tunnel; during the day they prepare the upcoming camp theatrical which Cartier will host–this despite the news of a major German victory at Verdun which has sapped the POWs’ morale. During the show, Maréchal stops the performance to announce that the French have retaken the Douaumont fortress at Verdun and the prisoners rise to sing La Marseillaise.

Maréchal is punished with solitary confinement. When he returns to the barracks weeks later, it is to find his colleagues preparing to escape through the now-finished tunnel. But before they can make their move, the officers are transferred to a new camp.

After a series of transfers and string of escape attempts, Maréchal and Boeldieu are sent to the “escape-proof” fortress at Wintersborn, where they are reunited with Rosenthal. The commandant is none other than Rauffenstein, who, wounded in action–his head now in a neck brace and white gloves hiding his scarred hands–has been assigned to a behind-the-lines desk job running the fortress.

Embittered and bored, Rauffenstein attempts to strike up a friendship with de Boeldieu by appealing to their class affinities. But it is Boeldieu who organizes an elaborate diversion to cover an escape attempt by the working-class Maréchal and the Jew Rosenthal.

Playing the decoy, Boeldieu commits the ultimate sacrifice for his comrades when he is fatally shot down by the reluctant Rauffenstein. Fighting exhaustion, cold and hunger, Maréchal and Rosenthal painfully make their way through the mountains toward the Swiss border. Slowed down by Rosenthal’s sprained ankle, the two men argue and make to separate, but the strength of their friendship keeps them together.

They find temporary refuge at the farm of a German peasant, Elsa (Dita Parlo), whose husband has died at the front. Maréchal and the lonely Elsa become lovers. But when Rosenthal’s ankle heals, it is time for the two men to pursue their road. Maréchal promises Elsa he will come back for her after the war. Finally reaching the frontier, just missing being captured by a German patrol, they cross the border into Switzerland, freedom, and a return to he war.

Running Time: 111 minutes

Oscar Alert:

Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” (“La Grande Illusion”) was the first foreign-language film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. A separate category for foreign films was established in 1956.

Oscar Nominations: 1
Picture, produced by Frank Rollmer and Albert Pinkovitc

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

Jean Renoir’s classic anti-war drama “Grand Illusion” competed for the Best Picture with nine other films: Capra’s You Can’t Take It Away,” which won, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Boys Town,” “The Citadel,” “Four Daughters,” “Jezebel,” “Pygmalion,” and “Test Pilot.”

Jean Renoir, son of the famous painter would receive just one Oscar nomination, Best Director for “The Southerner,” his American-made film, in 1945.


Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir & Charles Spaak
Producers: Albert Pinkevitch & Frank Rollmer
Assistant Director: Jacques Becker
Technical Advisor: Carl Koch
Photography: Christian Matras
Cameraman: Claude Renoir
Editor: Marguerite Houllé
Music: Joseph Kosma
Art Director: Eugène Lourié
Costume Designer: René Decrais
French premiere: June 8, 1937 U.S. premiere: September 12, 1938
Filmed at the Caserne de Colmar and the Château du Haut Koenigsbourg, Alsace
and the Studios Éclair and Studios de Boulogne-Billancourt, France
France Black & White Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Running time: 114 min.


Lieutenant Maréchal: Jean Gabin
Captain de Boeldieu: Pierre Fresnay
Captain Von Rauffenstein: Erich von Stroheim
Rosenthal: Marcel Dalio
Cartier, the Actor: Julien Carette
The Engineer: Gaston Modot
The Schoolmaster: Jean Dasté
Elsa: Dita Parlo
Lotte, her Daughter: Miss Peters
Demolder, the Greek Teacher: Sylvain Itkine
Charpentier: Georges Peclet
Arthur Krantz: Karl Heil
British Officer with the Watch: Jacques Becker
German M.P.: Carl Koch