The Grand Illusion
(French: La Grande Illusion
) is a 1937 war film directed by Jean Renoir
, who co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Spaak.
During World War One
, two French aviators, aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and working-class Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), embark on a flight for a reconnaissance mission. They are shot down by a German aviator and aristocrat, Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) who upon returning to base, sends a subordinate to find out if the aviators are officers and, if so, to invite them to lunch. During the meal, von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu discover they have mutual acquaintances. From there the French aviators are moved to an officers' POW camp.
Here they are quartered in a room with other French officers, including Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), the son of a Jewish banker, who supplies the others with food and delicacies sent from France via the Red Cross. The officers are digging a tunnel to escape from the camp, but shortly before it is finished, they are transferred to another camp. After several transfers (and failed off-screen escape attempts), de Boeldieu, Maréchal and Rosenthal are reunited in a camp in an old castle. The commandant is Major von Rauffenstein, now invalided out of frontline duty; he feels an affinity towards fellow aristocrat de Boeldieu, and talks with him about how the World War One
is bringing an end to the class they belong to and its code of honour. De Boeldieu provides the diversion necessary to permit Maréchal and Rosenthal to escape, forcing Rauffenstein to shoot him.
As Rauffenstein mourns the death of the man he wanted to be his friend, Maréchal and Rosenthal try to reach the border of neutral Switzerland on foot, but exhaustion and lack of food take their toll. They eventually find shelter in the farm of war widow Elsa (Dita Parlo) and her daughter Lotte. They stay over Christmas and Maréchal falls in love with Elsa, but eventually they have to leave because it is their duty to finish the war. Maréchal promises to return after the war and take Elsa with him to Paris.
This film, released a decade before the Academy Award
for best foreign-language film was given out, was the first film in a language other than English to be nominated for Best Picture. It remains one of only nine. It was also the first film released by The Criterion Collection
. Oh, and Maréchal's uniform? That was Jean Renoir's uniform from when he fought in World War I
Tropes associated with this work:
- Book Burning: A rather atypical example. The Cossack prisoners are so pissed when the care package from the Tsarina turns out to be books, and textbooks no less, that they promptly burn said books.
- Captivity Harmonica: One of the guards gives Maréchal one when he's imprisoned in a Cooler.
- Disguised in Drag: The British officers participating in the variety show in the first camp.
- During the War, some people got stuck in POW camps.
- End of an Age: Von Rauffenstein remarks that whoever wins the war, the days where aristocrats like he and de Boldieu controlled the world are over.
- Gentleman and a Scholar: Lieutenant Demolder, who spends his time translating Pindar from Ancient Greek in his free time.
- Gratuitous English / Hiding Behind the Language Barrier / Surprisingly Good English: Von Rauffenstein can speak French and de Bouldieu can speak German, but the two of them sometimes lapse into English when they are talking with each other. It's not clear why, but some scenes imply that the two of them use English when they don't want others to understand. Or it may be just a sign of cultural solidarity between the two well-educated aristocrats.
- Great Escape: Boeldieu, Maréchal, and their bunkmates in the POW camps are intent on this. Maréchal and Rosenthal finally manage to escape when Boeldieu creates a distraction that draws the attention of the guards.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Boeldieu not only passes on the chance to escape, he winds up getting fatally shot distracting the guards while Maréchal and Rosenthal escape.
- Hey Lets Put On A Show: The inmates at one camp put on a variety show to entertain each other.
- High-Class Glass: The noblemen, de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, both have them, and von Rauffenstein especially seems to like making a little show out of putting his in.
- If My Calculations Are Correct: "we should be under the garden wall in four days."
- Improbable Aiming Skills: Averted. Boeldieu is shot in the stomach although von Rauffenstein was aiming for his legs; he couldn't see where he was shooting because of the fog.
- Irony: Elsa's male relatives were all killed in the greatest German victories of the war.
- It Has Been an Honor: Rosenthal and Maréchal exchange words to this effect while making their final dangerous dash to the Swiss border.
- Language Barrier: As the gang is being taken away to another prison, Maréchal tries to tell an incoming prisoner about the escape tunnel, but the new inmate is British and can't understand a word.
- Music for Courage: The prisoners break into a defiant Marsailles when good news arrives from the front. This predates Casablanca by several years (and Dalio played Rick's croupier).
- Nice Jewish Boy: Rosenthal. He is concerned enough about the Greedy Jew stereotype that he gives out food from his parcels to his cellmates.
- Officer and a Gentleman: Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu crank this up to 150. The first time they meet, after Rauffenstein shoots de Boeldieu down, is when Rauffenstein invites de Boeldieu and Maréchal to dinner at the German mess. Later, after de Boeldieu is an inmante in Rauffenstein's camp, Rauffenstein won't let the guards search de Boeldieu's bunk, and he invites de Boeldieu to his quarters for a friendly chat.
- POW Camp: Several of them.
- Prussia: The film avoids many stereotypes - von Rauffenstein is cultured and cosmopolitan, fluent in French and English, and the NCO in the first prison camp good-naturedly suffers the imprisoned officers calling him "Arthur".
- Token Minority: One of the French officers in the first POW camp is Senegalais. His white fellow prisoners ignore him.
- Tunnel King: The civil engineer digging the tunnel in the first camp where de Boeldieu and Maréchal are interned.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The character of Maréchal was based on a French fighter pilot called Pinsard whom Jean Renoir had met during the war and who had made multiple escapes from German POW camps.
- The Von Trope Family: Von Rauffenstein comments on the aristocratic duties imposed by his name.
- We Need a Distraction: De Boldieu hits on the idea of facilitating the escape of Maréchal and Rosenthal by making a big ruckus to distract the guards.
- Worthy Opponent: De Boldieu and von Rauffenstein form a legitimate friendship.