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The Grand Illusion

by on April 29, 2009
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grand-illusionSome very respectable film authorities have opined that Jean Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion” is the finest motion picture ever made. I’ve been meaning to see it for years, but it’s not exactly the easiest film to find on video. I finally caught it on Turner Classic Movies (which, incidentally, is where I find most of my “Reeling Backward” review candidates).

It is indeed a wonderful film, although I don’t think it’s going to knock “Citizen Kane” off the all-time-best list anytime soon.

“The Grand Illusion” is a prisoner-of-war movie set during World War I, but released in 1938 when everyone in Europe surely knew that another cataclysmic struggle was about to ensue. This sense of forbidding permeates every scene and piece of dialogue in the movie. Even moments of hopefulness are fleeting and bittersweet.

Take, for example, the early section of the film, which plays out much like “The Great Escape” did a quarter-century later. There’s an international group of Allied officers (mostly French) who are prisoners in a German camp. They seem to get along well with their captors, offering them cigarettes and nibbles out of the generous aid packages they receive from home. Meanwhile, they’ve bored a hole in one of the cabin floors and are slowly tunneling to the fence perimeter. They even dispose of the dirt from the tunnel in the same manner as “Great Escape,” carrying it in their clothing out to gardening plots and surreptitiously dumping it into the flower beds.

But this plot thread ends abruptly, when the officers are transferred to another prison the day before the tunnel will be finished. There’s a wonderful scene where one of the French soldiers helps one of the British officers who will be taking their place at the camp, and tries to warn him about the tunnel in their new home. Alas, the Frenchman does not speak English, the Englishman does not speak French, so the French contingent leaves with all their hard work wasted. And think of those British officers, spending the rest of the war as prisoners while freedom lurks beneath them, a few shovelfuls between them and escape!

There is a large cast of characters, but three are prominent: Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin), a heroic working-class pilot; Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish intellectual; and Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a somewhat aloof nobleman. Marechal and de Boeldieu are captured together after their plane is shot down by a German aristocrat, but they are not friends. Marechal, a mechanic before the war, feels in adequate compared to the rich and well-educated de Boeldieu, and for his part the French aristocrat does little to disabuse him of the notion. Instead, Marechal buddies up with the good-natured Rosenthal, and hatches an escape plot once they’ve been transferred to their new prison inside a towering castle.

De Boeldieu does form a meaningful relationship, but oddly enough it is with their chief captor, Capt. von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), who was the German ace who shot them out of the sky. Von Rauffenstein is now an earthbound paper-pusher, suffering from terrible wounds that ended his flying career. He wears a constricting neck brace, and is always dressed formally in a spotless uniform, right down to white gloves. Von Rauffenstein explains that he dresses thusly because his entire body is covered in burn scars. One senses that he does not mind the physical pain of his injury such much as the indignity it consigns him to as a “mere policeman,” as he puts it. To him, the highest honor is to die in battle, and the fact that he will not reach this fate torments him. In his office, a solitary geranium is fussily watered and tended to, a symbol of carefully-cultivated ideals.

Except von Rauffenstein’s ideals are not so much idealistic as Old World anachronistic. He finds it irksome that men like Marechal and Rosenthal are permitted to serve side-by-side with aristocracy like de Boeldieu. Honor is the birthright of the noble elite, the German believes, but de Boeldieu is more realistic. He predicts the nobility’s pedestal will crumble soon after this war is over. Still, it’s clear that de Boeldieu greatly prefers the company of von Rauffenstein to that of his own Frenchman.

If I were to take a stab at what I think the film’s title refers to, it would be this notion of honor being bequeathed from parent to child, rather than something that is earned. Marechal and Rosenthal may be commoners, but they are as capable of bravery and love and compassion as any duke or prince. And von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu may cherish their courtly mannerisms and air of superiority, but the are just as capable of venality and pettiness as the lowliest peasant. The very concept of nobility, those finest ideals that reside in men’s hearts, is elusive, and the idea that one class has a monopoly on it, illusory.

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