This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
Just as Pauline Kael once noted it would be absurdly narrow to classify Grand Illusion as an "escape" film, so it feels reductive to tag it with the "antiwar" label. True, it is fundamentally antiwar, but in such an unusual way that it doesn't sit well alongside smoldering masterpieces like All Quiet on the Western Front or Paths of Glory. There is no combat, there are no speeches about the inhumanity of war, and there are only two deaths: an offscreen slaying of an unnamed character, and the shooting of an officer who is willing and prepared to die, in order to free his fellows. He is given several warnings - the shooter even pleas for him to stop - and is granted a poignant bedside farewell from his very executioner.
So we don't see the most awful side of the war, and the characters retain a certain dignity, humor, and will to live throughout. There are no villains. Ultimately Jean Renoir's classic is no furious "J'accuse" but something closer to "C'est la vie." Yet that statement is not uttered as an excuse but rather as an explanation, a "C'est la vie!" uttered over one's shoulder while running in the other direction. After all, these characters do not give up easily - they resist, they rebel, they escape; if they do not "accuse" it's because they're too busy subverting. Yet they do so without idealistic illusions; they are essentially pragmatists, dedicated only to survival and endurance - in body and spirit.
Grand Illusion is therefore an enigmatic title; its curious romanticism seems to fit the mood of the film without directly echoing any of the film's themes. One character tells another he's "suffering from illusions" for thinking the war will be over soon, but that's a minor point; more notably, the aristocratic officers (on both sides) realize that their refined way of living has no place in the modern world, but even this is far from being the movie's central theme. Indeed, the movie is too sensitive, wry, and humanistic to have an easily definable "central theme" - it prefers observation to commentary. Yet the accumulation of detail adds up to an ultimate impression: that war is unjust, that people have more in common than it seems, that life will continue in its unpredictable path no matter the circumstances. There's a sadness to the film but also a joy, if fear and anger are absent (from the general viewpoint if not the individual characters), disappointment is not.
The unusualness of Grand Illusion is emphasized not just by its difference from the combat movie - obviously there are plenty of wartime films that focus on the homefront, or the downtime, or the prisoner-of-war camps - but its difference from other POW films. In The Great Escape, The Bridge on the River Kwai, or Stalag 17, the camp is a constant setting, creating a feeling of ennui or claustrophobia. It has its own culture, it is a microcosm of the society outside, and its relationship to the war outside remains a constant reminder (in A Man Escaped, something else is going on: the prisoner is isolated, his struggle an individual one, and this too is quite different from the situation in Grand Illusion). Perhaps if Grand Illusion settled into its first camp scenario, it would resemble these other films more closely. After all, elements of this movie reappear in those later films - the tunnel dug in the floor, the cross-dressing variety show, the solitary confinement for the prisoner who defies authority.
Yet Renoir has already subverted this sense of the camp-as-our-whole-world by introducing us to the characters before they are captured (although he does not show us how they are captured - his desire to avoid any action whatsoever, until Boeldieu's attempted escape, is quite pronounced). French officers Marechal and Boeldieu are marched into the German headquarters, where they are politely greeted by Rauffenstein, the man who shot them down offering them a meal and his warm regard. Only after several sequences do we land at the camp, at which point we've already come to see the relationship between the heroes and the "enemy" as complicated. Most importantly, however, we don't stay at that first camp. Perversely, the characters are transferred elsewhere just as they complete their escape tunnel; they aren't even able to communicate with the new prisoners, to let them know of their good fortune. From there, Renoir shows us a montage of different camps, with changing landscapes (the locations seem to grow more barren with the passing months) - these characters are never in one place very long.
Grand Illusion, then, is a film of fluidity, change, and uncertainty, not one which creates a specific situation and a self-enclosed world within which a straightforward plot unfolds. By the time Marechal, Boeldieu, and their friend Rosenthal end up back in Rauffenstein's care, the circumstances are very different: he is still civil, but they are in a fortress instead of an open-air camp and the warmth, vitality, and latent optimism of that earlier experience has evaporated. Rauffenstein himself is trapped in in a neck brace and the only sign of earthy grace and beauty in the whole castle is his tiny little flower, which he will clip when Boeldieu dies. Subtly, the film takes a more desperate, more determined air - and several times Rauffenstein and Boeldieu express their view that the old world is dying. Boeldieu's gallant gesture of sacrifice is as much about suicide as liberation, and with him - a lingering symbol of the old sort of soldier - out of the picture, Marechal and Rosenthal escape into the countryside.
These fugitive scenes are my favorite in the picture; we get a sense of the raw chill in the air, we can practically feel the dirt and weeds chaffing the characters hiding in the brush, and we understand why the two friends almost reach their breaking point, the good humor and high spirits of the film up to now finally exhausting themselves when faced with the frustration and bitterness of the outside world. But then, warmth enters the picture once again, in the form of a German farm girl, whose husband and brothers are dead. She's icy at first, generous but restrained, yet it's no surprise when she and Marechal fall in love. Here again, as with the camp and the fortress, Renoir creates a world but it is strengthened for not being isolated - it's part of the bigger picture, a reminder that the characters live in a universe of many worlds, and many possibilities.
This is what gives the picture its excitement: it places bodies in motion and lets them interact - though the film does not use documentary techniques, and the performances are not exactly naturalistic (even if they are natural in a loose sense), it achieves that frisson, that insight, of good cinema verite. We are watching people interact with each other and their environment, not according to some preconceived plan, but in response to their own spiritual desires, physical needs, and emotional inclinations. Renoir does not obscure their backgrounds, or try to dismiss their socialization the way a dedicated ideologue might, decrying "false consciousness" while smugly reducing them to stereotypes. Instead, the director accepts that - whatever the circumstances behind their worldviews, those worldviews exist and have become intrinsic to who these characters are. Nature or nurture, it doesn't really matter - both have the same end result.
Furthermore, Rauffenstein is not merely "the German aristocrat," Rosenthal the "Jew parvenu," or Marechal the "macho mechanic." They have their types, but these exist in relation to their own personalities. One of Renoir's gifts is his ability to capture a person in a recognizable way, to see them as part of a whole, but also as their individual self. And in recognizing how environments shape all of us and how, in some ways, everyone is trapped by social roles, Renoir also recognizes how these conditioned identities can liberate us, giving us a foundation from which to more fully be ourselves. In this sense, Grand Illusion doesn't establish an "underlying humanity" despite the characters' backgrounds; instead it develops their "outlying humanity" through the roles conditioned by these backgrounds.
The fact that Rauffenstein believes in observing conventions and acting gracefully, or that Marechal needs to demonstrate a self-kidding (because self-confident) sense of secure no-nonsense masculinity actually clarifies and creates these characters; their personalities are invented by the interaction between their personal consciousness and the world around them. Perhaps, finally, this sense of self-discovery through society is the "grand illusion" of the title - the illusion that we are fundamentally ourselves when in fact circumstances beyond our control (represented in this film by the war itself, whose central actions notably remains offscreen yet ever-present) do the most to shape us. If so, it's an illusion we all share, and it's grand precisely because it's an illusion: without it, we would miss what makes us human and, whatever the outcome of the war, we would lose.
Grand Illusion appears at 5:20 in "The Golden Ages", a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies".