Le Grande Illusion, a French film directed by Jean Renoir
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Le Grande Illusion
France 1937
Directed by Jean Renoir

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997


A simple, although powerful, WWI escape story is transformed into a treatise on human behaviour in the time before the fanaticism of the Nazi era. Respect and gentlemanly behaviour are paramount between soldiers who are equal in every way bar their country of birth. In World War I France a pair of fliers depart on a short reconnaissance mission to visually identify some targets. Unfortunately Marechal (Jean Gabin) and Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) are shot down by German ace Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). In the spirit of camaraderie Rauffenstein invites the survivors to lunch, as his guests. The atmosphere is remarkably friendly for supposed enemies, although eventually a guard arrives to take them to a POW camp. In Hallbach, their new home, the interned officers are a combination of every country fighting against Germany, giving the barracks a cosmopolitan air. Although the rules are nominally enforced it seems that prisoners are generally left alone, just as long as they don't try to escape.

The rhythm of the prison is always present with its dependence upon the arrival of food parcels, news of victories or defeats and POW musicals. The French officers are lucky with their barracks since Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a French Jew, is there and he always shares his voluminous food parcels. It also turns out that their fellow British officers are digging a tunnel, which is almost completed. Although the risk is enormous and their tools limited, the officers use all of the classic tunnel-digging tricks to keep their project secret. However, just before they can stage a mass escape the prisoners are moved to another camp. What's even more frustrating is that the incoming officers don't know any French so Marechal can't even tell them of the tunnel. Passing quickly over a length of time, and a number of camps, Marechal, de Boeldieu and Rosenthal end up at Wintersborn for their repeated escape attempts. Wintersborn is the German's maximum-security camp (contained within a medieval castle) and it looks as though escape is out of the question.

A further surprise is that von Rauffenstein is the commandant, having retired from flying after a horrific, fiery crash. Since he and de Boeldieu are aristocratic equals, disregarding the other plebian prisoners, the French officer is treated with special deference and friendship. Both recognise that they are somewhat anachronistic, with their privileges being swept away in the "New World" order which is to come. Another escape plan is fashioned with de Boeldieu creating a diversion, and staying behind, while Marechal and Rosenthal climb down a makeshift rope to the ground far below. Although de Boeldieu doesn't exactly have great sympathy for his comrades he sacrifices himself, fatally as it turns out, to engender their escape. Von Rauffenstein sits by his deathbed as if he were an old friend. On the outside the escapees have plenty of trouble with patrols and dog-trackers after them. Their aim is to reach Switzerland but it's not at all clear that they'll reach this safety (the odds are against it).

Jean Renoir has directed a gentle, almost surreal (in its depiction of behaviour which seems so alien), picture which nevertheless makes significant observations on the futility of war. The ensemble acting is sublime, suggesting a wealth of depth to each character without overwhelming them with detail. The merest suggestion of the barriers which separate the titled elite from everyone else is enough to illuminate how fragile (and flexible) the delineation between friend and foe is. Visually there are many impressive and memorable scenes, ranging from the suffocating claustrophobia of digging a tunnel to the vast, impersonal Alpine snowfields. Another interesting touch is that while the film is mostly subtitled the characters speak in their mother tongues (which adds a much more authentic feel and is a nice change from American speaking German soldiers). More than anything though this is a story of hope and that's recommendation enough for anyone.

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