By Gary Kafer
As the aristocratic French Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) lies prostrate on his death bed, a gunshot wound in his stomach just off screen, he utters to his assassin, the German Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim): “For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and I, it’s a good way out.” And so goes ‘the grand illusion’ of Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece, a war film that is curiously less about the hostilities of World War I, and perhaps more concerned with a shared humanism in the wake of an abrupt new world order.
Following de Boeldieu and his working class partner Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) as prisoners of war under German control, Renoir constructs a complex narrative of failed escape plots as the duo is eventually relocated to Wintersborn, a camp under the command of von Rauffenstein, the very man who shot down their airplane in the film’s opening scene. Here, the pair is joined by the wealthy French-Jewish Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), and the three venture to execute an elaborate plan to distract the patrol officers for their ultimate jailbreak. The film concludes in uncertainty and likewise the state of war fails to find resolution; Maréchal and Rosenthal trudge into the distance towards Switzerland while de Boeldieu falls victim to von Rauffenstein’s pistol.
Yet, while such a straightforward account of the film’s narrative seems to tie moral hierarchies to a fervent nationalism, the beauty of The Grand Illusion is in Renoir’s refusal to portray any one individual as the “victim” or “enemy.” Among the Frenchmen, class and ethnic distinctions are forgotten in the face of their collective incarceration. Even von Rauffenstein, whose chilly exterior foreshadows fascist stereotypes, emerges as a sympathetic character with allegiances to fellow aristocrats across national boundaries.
Moreover, Renoir refrains from depicting actual armed conflict, and uses the prisoner camp as a mirror for the tragedy felt elsewhere throughout the continent. The Grand Illusion is thus a war movie with no war. Rather, Renoir’s genius comes in remapping “war” onto an existential grid of a universal human suffering in the wake of the devastations wrought by WWI. Here, the violence of war is reframed as the violence of politics and nationalism. In Renoir’s eyes, the war is a crisis of identity. Similar to de Boeldieu’s final words, Renoir’s interest lies in the collapse of the old order of European society and, with it, the grand illusion of differences in national, political, economic, and ethnic identity.
Since its premier at Venice and its incredible success with American audiences, followed by a nomination for Best Picture and accolades by Franklin Roosevelt and Orson Welles, The Grand Illusion has become an essential in film history for its meditation on the world’s changing social and political landscape. And perhaps now more than ever the film’s sincerity claims urgency in our current experiences of war and our consumption of hyper-violent media, both of which tend to exaggerate the conflict of identity politics under cynical ideologies. What Renoir reveals is that resolution does not need to come with sacrifice and suffering, but rather it can be found in the apotheosis of an ordinary humanist spirit.
Gary Kafer, originally from southern Virginia, is a senior in Cinema Studies and Visual Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
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