The cinema of Jean Renoir is all about understanding, so it’s telling that Grand Illusion, a movie of enormous sympathy and grace would be designated “Cinematic Enemy No. 1” by the Nazis who confiscated the original negative immediately after they marched into France. The story of the print is fascinating. It was thought to be destroyed in an air raid but it actually had been safely swept away to Berlin where it waited out the war until it was picked up by the conquering Russians. It stayed in the USSR for 20 years until a French museum exchanged some items with a Russian archive and one of the pieces swapped was the priceless and unrecognized negative. At the same time Renoir was piecing together a version of Grand Illusion from used prints that were thought to be the best available copies when the original was right there in France, under his and everyone else’s nose. It wasn’t until the 1990s when it was discovered that Grand Illusion was intact and in good condition. Along with Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) being found in a barn in 1993 and lost sections of Lang’s Metropolis (1927) being found in Argentina in 2008, it was to be considered one of the most miraculous film discoveries of the last 20 years (I want to mention that Hitchcock’s debut, The White Shadow , long thought lost, resurfaced about six months ago, I can’t include that as a great find however as I’ve not seen it and the film and, by its director’s own admission, is forgettable. If the missing footage from Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons  turns up, that’s something else).
Grand Illusion’s remarkable history shouldn’t take away from that fact that it is, on it’s own, a remarkable document of decency and human nature. This is a war picture that involves two sides, heroes but no villains. Perhaps what the Nazis objected to so stringently was Renoir’s assertion that people were generally decent, both French and Germans, and gentiles and Jews.
The story takes place during World War I and two French officers have had their planes shot down. They are the aristocratic career officer de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and a workingman mechanic promoted by merit Maréchal (Jean Gabin). They represent the 11th and 12th planes brought down by von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) and when they are captured, because they are officers, von Rauffenstein invites them to lunch. Eventually they are brought to a POW camp where they meet other working class officers of Maréchal’s ilk including the goofy Cartier (Julien Carette who would later play the poacher in Renoir’s Rules of the Game ), the practical Demolder (Sylvain Itkine) and the new money Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) whose family sends him such elaborate parcels that he and his mates eat better than the guards. The camp is relatively hospitable, it operates on a set of “gentlemen’s rules,” the prisoners are allowed to perform skits (there is a funny and sad scene in which a prisoner dresses in drag as a joke and we realize that the other prisoners have gone so long without seeing a real woman that they’ll take the substitute) but this is a new kind of war, one in which technology and class politics have made the grand illusions of the de Boeldieus and von Rauffensteins and their ideas of civilized warfare obsolete.
Two moments should resonate with most moviegoers; the group decides to escape by digging a tunnel underneath their barracks to beyond the camp walls. To get rid of excess dirt they carry it out in sacks and dump it during exorcise, a trick that will be used in 1963’s The Great Escape. During a vaudeville performance put on by the prisoners, the show is interrupted by the news that the French army has recaptured Fort Douaumont. The prisoners unite in a singing of La Marseillaise to the displeasure of their German captors. This scene will turn up in 1943’s Casablanca. It is very disheartening then, when the prisoners see a newspaper a few days later announcing that Douaumont had once again fallen into German control.
De Boeldieu and Maréchal are transferred to an exclusive camp in an old Chateau under the command of none other than von Rauffenstein and are later joined by Rosenthal. Here von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu bond. It’s clear that de Boeldieu sees the writing on the wall that the old aristocratic ways are next to dead but von Rauffenstein, now made rigid in braces for burns and a spine injury, clings to his illusion. He bemoans the ascension of those like Maréchal (he says the Jewish name Rosenthal with a little extra disdain). De Boeldieu recognizes the future and has seen first hand the stagnation and decline of his own family (in fact, the Rosenthals now own much of the land that used to belong to the de Boeldieus). Fresnay is excellent as a man of taste. He’s able to stay aloof but not distant, he seems to gain the other’s sympathy but he can’t resist correcting the guard who forgets the “captain” of his title during role call.
Von Stroheim, however, is a revelation, turning a character that could have been a cartoon into a real man. A proper and elegant fellow, who wears white gloves because of the burns on his hands but probably would anyway who compulsively tends his geranium (“the only flower in the fortress”). He gives the character weight and it’s a remarkable physical performance as well as a recited one (von Stroheim knew very little German). We get the impression that von Rauffesntein understands the changing times better than he admits and he exists in a state of almost envious naïveté. His incredulity when de Boeldieu tries to escape is heartbreaking, even more so when de Boeldieu forces von Rauffenstein to shoot him. Then we have a wonderful scene between the two of them while de Boeldieu dies. “For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy,” de Boeldieu says. “But for us, it’s a good way to go.” They are two of a kind separated by their circumstances.
Maréchal and Rosenthal escape and are taken in by a war widow (Dita Parlo) near the Swiss border. Though they do not share a language she and Maréchal fall in love. Renoir is arguing that as much as the upper classes are the same, perhaps the lower castes are even more united, as their fates are the ones the aristocrats play with. Grand Illusion was marketed as a romance and, in fact, Parlo is given second billing in the opening credits after Gabin. She has a very important part but doesn’t appear until 20 minutes before the movie is over. She does have the capacity for powerful forgiveness as she describes her husband and brothers, all killed in French locations. Perhaps her loneliness overrides her nationalism. Renoir and Jean Vigo were contemporaries that obviously thought quite a bit of each other’s casting. First, with Vigo putting Michel Simon at the center of his L’Atalante (1934) after he was similarly used in Renoir’s Boudo Saved from Drowning (1932) and in Grand Illusion we have Parlo, also from L’Atalante (Jean Dasté, the third lead in Vigo’s film also has a part in Grand Illusion). Unlike the romantic waif in L’Atalante, here she is weathered and hardened and a little sad. She seems much older than her 31 years.
Like in all Renoir movies we can see motivations from everyone involved. We understand the Germans (there’s even a touching scene with Maréchal in solitary confinement when a guard tries to console his cabin feverish charge), they aren’t faceless enemies. Yes, they are separated by a declaration of war, but who made that declaration? Certainly no one in the camps. Besides, they’ll still connected by their common genetics as human beings. Film is the finest vehicle for empathy and Renoir might be the greatest driver to that end. Consider the Rosenthal character and the fact that Renoir is the son of Pierre-August Renoir, a great painter, no doubt, but a noted anti-Semite. What understanding the child must have had to see past that to include a character like Rosenthal. Or think of Renoir himself, a World War I veteran, injured in combat and left with a permanent limp. There is no malice in his portrayal of the Germans in Grand Illusion. “I believe a work is good to the degree that it expresses the man who created it,” said Orson Welles, who considered Grand Illusion one of the movies he would “take on the ark.” Well, Grand Illusion is a good movie and if Welles is right than, by extension, Jean Renoir was a good man.