a commentary by Tony McRae

War is about opposing sides, combatants fighting one another.  Conflict is the essence of war--and of any war movie.  In Grand Illusion we do have opposition (e.g., French--German; aristocracy--working class; Jew--Christian), yet the soul of this film is its humanity which, for Renoir, is able to breach any barrier.  This is not disingenuous on his part:  his special gift is being able to show weaknesses, even villainies, without ever losing sight of the struggles and pain of his characters.  

The movie opens with two French officers about to set out on an air reconnaissance of German positions during World War One.  We quickly cut to a German officer telling his comrades he has shot down a French plane and that if the pilots are officers to invite them to dinner.  This first encounter between the French officers de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and the German von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim) takes place around a table and sets the tone for the remainder of the movie.  Chivalry still exists in the midst of battle.  Renoir will use the table motif throughout the film, not only to show camaraderie but to subtly draw attention to class differences.  In this first table scene the aristocrats Boeldieu and Rauffenstein, both career officers, talk in French and English, and remain apart the others, both Germans and Maréchal.  But even here Renoir shows the essential goodness of these people, their acts of ordinary kindness to one another--the German offering to cut the wounded Maréchal's meat, for example.  These acts permeate the film:  Modot cleaning Maréchal's feet (left), Maréchal helping the nearly crippled Rosenthal walk or Boeldieu helping Maréchal and Rosenthal escape.  Renoir never ignores the fact that each of these individuals is a member of a certain social class, but when he shows their interaction he whittles away at the clear lines that have separated these classes in the past.  This is not to say that he thinks we are heading toward a classless society--that, too, is an illusion.  Rather he shows that class boundaries are fast becoming illusions, albeit illusions that some (especially Rauffenstein and Boeldieu) are unwilling to give up.

The film's title itself draws attention to a major element in the film, though it is safe to say that there is not a single great illusion but rather many illusions.  Certainly each of the principle characters has his (and in the case of Elsa, her) illusions.  Near the end of the film Maréchal expresses the hope that perhaps this war will end wars forever and that he may be able to return for Elsa; Boeldieu and Rauffenstein cling to their aristocratic ways and to class loyalties; Elsa hopes that the table where her daughter now sits (right) will once again be filled with family and friends.  

When Renoir began shooting Grand Illusion in 1937 Hitler was already in the ascendancy and the persecution of the Jews was well underway.  So it is no coincidence that one of his principle characters is a wealthy Jew who "entertains" his fellow prisoners with bundles of food sent by his family (left).  Of course the Frenchmen sitting at Rosenthal's table (an aristocrat, a teacher, a mechanic, etc.) would never be his guests in his chateau back in France.  Yet Renoir manages to instill a sense of fraternity and warmth while gently underlining the irony of the situation.

Renoir uses language as he does many of the motifs in this film, that is, as a means of communication and simultaneously as a barrier to understanding.  I've already mentioned the initial table scene where Rauffenstein and Boeldieu converse in English.  Later Rauffenstein will resort to English during Boeldieu's theatrics on the ramparts, entreating him to give himself up.  There is little doubt that any other prisoner would have been summarily shot on the spot, but Rauffenstein entreats him in English, "I beg you man to man...come back."  When the prisoners are being transported to another prison, Maréchal tries to tell a British officer of the nearly completed tunnel, but he can speak no English and the Brit does not understand French.  The most poignant instance of language barriers occurs during the last episode of the film, when Maréchal and Rosenthal are hiding out in Elsa's farmhouse.  Elsa can speak no French, Maréchal no German.  Luckily Rosenthal speaks both, but it is soon evident that Maréchal needs no interpreter.  When she tells him in German to fetch the water, Rosenthal tries to tell him what she's saying.  But Maréchal waves him off:  "For 18 months I never understood the guards.  But her I understand."  

Renoir and the bonds of humanity: the mobile frame.  Renoir's use of the mobile camera serves several functions, the salient ones showing us the relationships of the characters with one another and with their environment.  In most cases the camera moves not principally to follow a character who is himself moving but rather it moves of its own   accord, and thus becomes a metaphor which resonates within the context of the story.  Renoir uses this device so often that patterns begin to appear that reinforce his basic humanistic stance toward the characters.  One such instance--and one of the film's most famous scenes--is the singing of the "Marseillaise," an act of defiance during the prisoners' musical revue.  The moving frame shot lasts 6o seconds--the time it takes to sing the "Marseillaise."  Maréchal has just learned that the town of Douaumont has been recaptured by the French.  He rushes on stage and stops the show with the announcement of the French victory (1).  Renoir then cuts to the woman impersonator who takes off his wig (1) and requests the band to play the "Marseillaise."  For a full minute the camera pans the room, moving from the singer to Maréchal holding the newspaper and glaring at the German officers (2) who leave the room, then panning the front row of the audience (3) back to the singer, finally panning left to the full audience who are standing and singing (4).  By not cutting, Renoir manages to give the scene incredible unity and power; we feel that all the prisoners are acting as one.  

This mobile frame is used in almost every scene; the audience is soon conditioned to this technique; we know there is ample opportunity to examine both the characters and their surrounding--and to draw our own conclusions as to motivation, character and the like.  This does not mean that Renoir is predictable.  At one point one of the prisoners has gone into the tunnel to continue digging.  He is quickly overcome by lack of oxygen, pulls the warning string to alert those back in the barracks.  A cut to the barracks where the prisoners are all distracted by noise outside.  Slowly Renoir pans back to the can attached to the string which has fallen onto a bed, unnoticed.  The audience wishes them to turn and finally they do.  

In the film's final scene, as Maréchal and Rosenthal trudge through the deep snow, the camera pans left to show the pursuing German soldiers.  In a slow tracking Renoir pans from screen left to screen right picking up the small fleeing figures.  The officer in command tells his troops not to fire:  "They are in Switzerland."  It is appropriate that this last shot links the two sides which are now separated by a border which to all appearances is obliterated by the snow.  


The Criterion Collection's beautifully restored version of Grand Illusion is available from DVD Planet and Amazon.
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