Grand Illusion

1937, Movie, NR, 95 mins


One of the undeniably great films in the history of world cinema, Jean Renoir's GRAND ILLUSION is an eloquent commentary on the borders that divide people, classes, armies and countries.

The film opens during WWI, as Marechal (Jean Gabin) and Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) are shot down by German ace Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). The two survive the crash and are invited to lunch by Rauffenstein before ground troops arrive to cart the French officers off to a POW camp. Although Marechal and Boeldieu are compatriots, the latter has more in common with Von Rauffenstein, both of them being members of the white-gloved aristocracy. After lunch the Frenchmen are placed in barracks, where French officer Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jew, befriends them, along with several British officers who have also been taken prisoner. The newcomers join the others in working on an escape tunnel beneath the barracks, but a French victory on the Western Front is a sign that the war is turning against the Germans, and Marechal, Boeldieu, and the rest of the French prisoners are transferred to another prison, where they are reunited with Von Rauffenstein.

Now confined to a neck brace after a combat injury, the Commandant warmly welcomes the Frenchmen, pointing out that his prison, Wintersborn, is escape-proof. He treats his prisoners with great deference, having them to dinner and extending what meager courtesies he can, talking with Boeldieu about how this war will bring to an end the gentlemanly class of officers, dispensing with the honor and dignity of their rank and bloodlines. Caught someplace in between his loyalty to a member of his class (Von Rauffenstein) and to his country, Boeldieu once again agrees to assist his fellow prisoners in their escape attempts.

Directed with patience and care by Renoir, the film was banned in Germany by Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, who labeled it "Cinematographic Enemy No. 1" and compelled his Italian counterpart to have the film banned in that country, although the 1937 Venice Film Festival gave the film a "Best Artistic Ensemble" award. It was thought that all European prints of the film were destroyed by the Nazis, but American troops uncovered a negative in Munich in 1945 (preserved, strangely, by the Germans themselves), leading to the truncated film's reconstruction. Gabin, Fresnay, Dalio, and Stroheim all give impressive performances in this beautifully directed and written film. leave a comment

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