One of the first things Joseph Goebbels did when the Germans occupied France during the course of the Second World War was to order the seizure of all prints and the negative of La Grande Illusion. Such was the power of Jean Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece. It stood for everything the Nazis hated. The original nitrate negative was thought to be lost for decades, until it was rediscovered and restored in the 1990s; with a new digital restoration, Renoir’s pacifist message is clearer than ever before, while still retaining its poignancy.
Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) were on a reconnaissance mission before being shot down by Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim). They are then transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp where they meet other French captives, including Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). Ironically, this is a war film without a single battle scene. Renoir’s camera serenely roams around these characters, silently observing these prisoners as a microcosm of war, quietly expressing the nobility and futility of it all.
The nonchalant Boeldieu and the stiff, Teutonic Rauffenstein are both aristocrats cut from the same cloth. They have both dined at Maxim’s in Paris, courted the same woman, shared the same acquaintances, and they are – most importantly – bound by their duty to the war. Yet they are a dying breed, a fact Boeldieu recognises when he tells Rauffenstein, “Neither you nor I can stop the march of time.”
Renoir grounds his film in the characters’s humanity, despite being divided by class. The aristocrats are being gradually replaced by the working class and parvenu, epitomised when Boeldieu sacrifices himself to allow Maréchal and Rosenthal to escape. Boeldieu proves to Rauffenstein that a gentleman’s word is now worthless by falsely promising him they will not attempt to escape. In the face of rising fascism, Renoir subverts stereotypes through Rosenthal, a nouveau riche Jew, who generously shares his food parcels with his fellow prisoners, despite their teasing of his Jewishness. Even Elsa (Dita Parlo), a German who lost her brothers and husband in the battles of Verdun, Liège, Charleroi, and Tannenberg – “our greatest victories” – provides food and shelter for the escapees.
La Grande Illusion is ultimately a critique of social, political, racial divisions, which are all irrelevant in war, and a case for unity in shared humanity. One can perhaps hear Renoir’s voice in Rosenthal’s when he says, “it is a grand illusion” in response to the claim that it was a war to end all wars.
La Grande Illusion is at the BFI Southbank from 6 to 19 April 2012 and is available on DVD and Blu-ray from 23 April 2012