Jean Renoir’s, The Grand Illusion has blown a large portion of my mind away. Living in the perspectives of a Frenchman must have been fun. Even during the first World War. They were so cordial, so civil, to appreciative of the finer things, the well crafted, the perfectly suited. As a Lieutenant Pilot in the French Army, Maréchal is mellow, casual. He has accepted the war, and just wishes to enjoy as much of his time as possible in between his command of others and his flight orders. A higher officer, Boieldieu comes to request fly over to review the latest aerial surveys. The two soldiers realize immediately they are not the same, that there is a wall between them, but know they must do their duty. He obliges casually, and it is done.
On the German side, like the French Officer, the Commandant Captain Von Rauffenstein was first shown slamming down Champaign in celebration of his boys shooting down a plane. He declares firmly that he is to be allowed to drink enough to get drunk. It turns out the plane shot down is the French plane carrying Maréchal and Boieldieu. Renoir then takes a wonderful turn.
Today we have the prisons and rehab centers for the social elite or Hollywood’s brightest stars that are like mini versions paradise. It would be funny if not so frightening. Renoir takes this angle in this war film. Higher ranking Officers on all armies, live civilly. They act in accordance with the laws of chivalry. Even prisoner’s of war, even though officers still prisoners of war, but treated extremely cordially. It’s the grand illusion of dignity and civility during war time.
Captain Von Rauffenstein, upon learning two officers were in the plane which was shot down, invites Maréchal and Boieldieu to dinner, as if inviting to potential clients out to discuss business. After a wonderful meal and some wine, the two French officers are then taken away.
Maréchal and Boieldieu, are bounced around from one prison camp to another, although never can we really call any of them a camp. They are treated with the utmost respect, are provisioned with just about all they need, and are allowed to freely move about the compound as long as they don’t escape. And escape is always on the minds of all prisoners. As the cold, calculating Maréchal states, “Why not plan escapes? This is war, we are prisoners of war, it’s the only thing that should occupy our minds.”
In one camp, a tunnel is being dug. The tools, the methods, the way of dumping the dirt in the yard, all seen again in The Great Escape, for was most certainly inspired by this scene. However, the prisoners are relocated to another camp before completing this tunnel. During their stay and their digging, we meet Rosenthal. A Jewish prisoner who’s parent are extremely wealthy bankers who send him many, plentiful care packages including food, books, tools, etc. One crate arrived with dozens of women’s dresses and lingerie inspiring the men to put on a play for the German Commandants, and framed one humorous scene when the men were tearing through the crate taking and reflecting on the woman in their lives and in their fantasies, when one prisoner stepped forward already in drag. The entire barracks stopped with they were doing and stood silently staring at the sight before their eyes. The prisoner looked a woman to them indeed.
Eventually, the three officers, Maréchal, Boieldieu and Rosenthal made it back to Von Rauffenstein’s camp where they were greeted like long parted friends. Boildiue and Von Rauffenstien had many conversations, each knowing they were career army men with nothing else to live for. When the war is over, their lives are over. Boildiue commented that after all wars, it never the Boieldieus and Rauffenstiens that survive, but the Marechal and Rosenthal’s that live on.
And thus Marechal and Rosenthal do indeed escape, thanks to Boieldieu who sacrifices his life for them. The rest of the film depicts Marechal and Rosenthal escape and journey out of Germany. They find their way into a home of a German woman, who lives alone with her daughter. Her husband was killed in the fighting. They stay several weeks with her healing their wounds and paying their way, and Marechal eventually falls in love with the woman. However, to keep up the grand illusion for which they do not even know why, they are forced to leave, and the final scene shows them crossing the border into Switzerland and thus, to freedom.
Renoir has made a film that reflects the insanity and lunacy of war without showing a lick of violence. The Grand Illusion is that war is good and there is a winner. The grand illusion is that patriotism is a virtue, that there is virtue in higher classes, that there is virtue in dying for anything but your own ideals, that there is virtue in bloodshed.