GRAND ILLUSION (1937) B/W 95m dir: Jean Renoir
w/Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Marcel Dalio, Julien Carette, Dita Parlo, Gaston Modot, Jean Daste, Sylvain Itkine, Georges Peclet, Edouard Daste
Quite simply, a classic film. Renoir's study of men in war takes place in a prisoner of war camp and explores the bonds that bind those men: be they national, fraternal, or social/class-related. The conflicts of these bonds are complex and troubling, and Renoir in all his implacable optimism scants none of these ponderables, though his faith was easier held before WWII than after. The film is a stunning depiction of the fall of the upper class, as well as being an anti-war film which Renoir was brave enough to film without any battle scenes. (In French: subtitled)
From Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films: "Famous sequences: downed French pilots welcomed in the mess of their German conquerors; the French prisoners' arrival at the camp; building the escape tunnel under the entrance to the barrack room; the prisoners dressed up as women singing the 'Marseillaise' in the theater; the discussions between the stiff-necked Junker camp commandant and Boieldieu about the role of their class after the war; von Rauffenstein shooting down his French friend as he walks along the ramparts playing the flute, and then placing a geranium on his corpse; the violent altercations between Rosenthal and Marechal as they flee through the snow; Marechal's love affair with the peasant girl; the final sprint to freedom.
"Although it won an award at the Venice Film Festival, the film was banned in Germany and Italy. It was a great success elsewhere, and won an Academy Award. [Sadoul's reference to the film's winning an Oscar is curious: GRAND ILLUSION was nominated as Best Picture of 1938, losing to YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU; there was no Foreign-Language Film Oscar at the time.] It was voted one of the 12 Best Films of All Time at Brussels in 1957 and enjoyed further success on its re-release.
"'The story of La Grande Illusion is scrupulously accurate and was told me by several of my wartime friends, particularly Pinsard, whose escapes are the basis of the story, But an escape story, however exciting, isn't enough to make a film. A script must be written and Charles Spaak collaborated with me on this. Our common belief in equality and fraternity was added to the bonds of our friendship' (Renoir, 1958). If Renoir brought his memories as a pilot and prisoner of war to the film, Stroheim considerably enriched the character of von Rauffenstein during production by adding some of his own experience and background.
"Introducing his film to the American public in 1938, Renoir wrote: 'I hear Hitler yelling on the radio, demanding the partition of Czechoslovakia. We are on the brink of another "Grande Illusion." I made this film because I am a pacifist. To me, a true pacifist is a Frenchman, a German, an American. The day will come when men of good faith will find a common meeting ground. Cynics will say that my words at this point in time are naive. But why not?' He added in 1946: 'The Frenchmen in this film are good Frenchmen and the Germans are good Germans, like those before the 1939 war. I found it impossible to take sides with any of the characters.'"