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Film / The Grand Illusion

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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 I, 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 Great War 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 12. It was also the first film released on DVD by The Criterion Collection note . Oh, and Maréchal's uniform? That was Jean Renoir's uniform from when he fought in World War I.

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  • Bilingual Bonus: A group of German recruits is heard singing the melancholy marching song O Straßburg, du wunderschöne Stadt ("Oh Straßburg, you marvelously beautiful town"), which is about Strasbourg being filled with soldiers' graves and a mother and father vainly asking a captain to allow their son, a soldier, to return to them. In the ending (not included in the film) the captain says: "No, he must die in the wide, broad field, though his black-brown girl will bitterly cry for him".
  • Book Burning: A rather atypical example. The Russian 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.
  • Cavalry Officer: Major von Rauffenstein, a cavalry officer turned fighter pilot.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Pretty much everyone contributes a sarcastic quip or two, but Maréchal is the main snarker.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The first two acts of the story, the second act in particular, focus on Boeldieu. However, after he is shot and killed making a distraction so Maréchal and Rosenthal can escape, Maréchal becomes the primary focus, especially once they meet Elsa.
  • Disguised in Drag: The British officers participating in the variety show in the first camp aren't really disguised, but it's revealed that Maréchal has on separate occasions tried to escape while disguised as a German officer as well as a woman.
  • 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 Boeldieu controlled the world are over.
    de Boeldieu:"For the common man, dying in war is a tragedy. But for you and me, it's a good way out."
  • Fate Worse than Death: Boeldieu says that living in a postwar world where the aristocracy no longer has a purpose will be this for von Rauffenstein.
  • Genre Shift: The first two acts are are about Bouldieu and Maréchal's attempts to escape imprisonment. The third act takes place after Maréchal and Rosenthal have escaped and lay low with a German woman who has lost a husband and son to the war. It becomes a romantic drama when she and Maréchal fall in love.
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: Lieutenant Demolder, who spends his time translating Pindar from Ancient Greek in his free time.
  • Gratuitous 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, Let's 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 prisoner-of-war camp, Maréchal tries to tell an incoming prisoner about the escape tunnel, but the new inmate is British and can't understand a word.
    • With Elsa and Maréchal also. Rosenthal can speak German and acts as the translator when the pair stay at Elsa's, but Maréchal eventually picks up some rudimentary German.
  • Literary Allusion Title:
    • The film's title refers to the economist Norman Angell's book "The Great Illusion"(In French, "grande" means "great"). In that book he argued that modern nations had no real economic justification for going to war, since the global economy depended on co-operation and free network among citizens. note 
    • Renoir's film was inspired by it, showing how soldiers tend to have more in common with people from their opposing numbers than they do with their own units - de Boeldieu and Rauffenstein are aristocrats who see the war as the only time their titles mean something as opposed to being In Name Only, Marechal and the German widow played by Dita Parlo also have a cautious courtship because they relate to each other better being of the same class. On a more poignant note, Rosenthal being a middle-class Jew and Marechal bond despite their class differences and the latter's subtle bigotry and somehow relate to each other as human beings in the confinement of the army.
  • Music for Courage: The prisoners break into a defiant Marseillaise when good news arrives from the front. This predates Casablanca by several years (and Dalio played Rick's croupier). As in Casablanca, the Marseillaise also appears in competition with "The Watch on the Rhine", which the German soldiers sing when there's good news from the front for them.
  • 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.
  • Romancing the Widow: Maréchal and Elsa slowly fall in love.
  • Token Minority: One of the French officers in the first POW camp is Senegalais. His white fellow prisoners ignore him.
    • Rosenthal also counts. The Dreyfus affair only ended in 1899 and French Jews continued to live in its shadow for a long time after.
  • Trope Codifier: Lays the groundwork for pretty much every subsequent prisoner of war film.
  • 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.
  • War for Fun and Profit: Inverted. Rauffenstein lists the silver plate in his skull and other silver items implanted into his heavily wounded body, adding wrily: "Yes, the war provided me with considerable riches."
  • We Need a Distraction: De Boeldieu hits on the idea of facilitating the escape of Maréchal and Rosenthal by making a big ruckus to distract the guards.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: The French POWs in the vaudeville show.
  • Working-Class Hero: Jean Gabin became a star of French Cinema for embodying this, and Marechal is perhaps his most iconic role. Renoir also manages to avoid idealizing him, unlike other European movies at the time, by showing his flaws, namely bigotry (which he still struggles to overcome).
  • Worthy Opponent: De Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein form a legitimate friendship.