Set during the First World War, Grand Illusion concerns a group of French airmen taken prisoner by the Germans. Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin), a mechanic in civilian life, is shot down along with Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocratic career officer. They are invited to lunch by the courtly flying ace responsible for their capture, Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), like de Boeldieu a member of the upper class who has devoted his life to military service. Marechal and de Boeldieu share prison quarters with four fellow officers: a music-hall performer, a provincial schoolteacher, a land surveyor, and the scion of a wealthy Jewish banking family named Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). In civilian life these men's paths would never have crossed; the upper classes did not mingle with those of the lower social strata, and, with anti-Semitism rampant even in the century's early decades, no one would have associated with a Jew.
But war is the great equalizer, and World War I, in particular, produced seismic changes in the prevailing social order, sounding the death knell for the old European aristocracy. Both von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu are members of that dying breed -- urbane, educated elitists who have more in common with one another than with their fellow officers but who are forced by circumstance to be adversaries.
The French prisoners dig an escape tunnel, but on the day of their planned break, Marechal and de Boeldieu are transferred to another camp. After numerous transfers and a string of escape attempts, they find themselves reunited -- along with Rosenthal -- at a fortress commanded by von Rauffenstein, whose war wounds have put an end to his flying career. Another escape plan is hatched. De Boeldieu acts as a decoy, willingly sacrificing himself so that Marechal and Rosenthal can flee. In the film's most moving sequence, a deeply saddened von Rauffenstein tends to the dying man.
Marechal and Rosenthal struggle through the snow toward Switzerland. Hungry, frightened, and with the injured Rosenthal slowing them down, the two men quarrel, exchange hateful words, and part, only to reconcile tearfully. They are offered refuge by a German peasant woman (Dita Parlo, familiar from her starring role in Jean Vigo's L'Atalante) who has lost her husband and brothers to the war. Though she and Marechal do not speak each other's language, they fall in love. The time comes, however, when the men must continue their journey -- and return to war.
By every conceivable measure Grand Illusion is a great film: Its message is timeless, and its capacity to touch an audience emotionally has not diminished with the years, nor has its ability to entertain. Renoir invests the film with a simplicity -- of form and structure, story and presentation -- that belies its immense emotional power. It is evident in the way the camera moves, with the director's famous long takes during which the camera tracks from one group of characters to another and then another without cutting away. Joseph Kosma's stirring score combines the driving beat and cadence of a military march with the inspirational lift of a hymn, creating a mood at once urgent and spiritual.
The performances are flawless. Gabin, who epitomized the French working-class hero in film after film, is so natural and believable, he doesn't seem to be acting at all. Fresnay and von Stroheim reveal the contradictions and underlying tragedy of their characters -- von Stroheim, in particular, creates enormous empathy -- while Dalio (who also starred in Renoir's The Rules of the Game) captures the shyness, kindness, and pride that motivate the enormously appealing Rosenthal.
There is a heroic quality to all of the characters, and despite the class divisions and ethnic hostilities on display, there is also an underlying sense of humanity to the story as a whole. There are no villains other than war itself -- an assertion that could not be made 20 years later, when the Nazis carved out an ignominious place for themselves in human history.
Grand Illusion was one of countless films seized by the Nazis after they rolled into Paris in May of 1940. Ironically, the theft proved a blessing in disguise, since two years later Allied bombers destroyed the film laboratory where hundreds of film negatives had been stored, including the original negative of Grand Illusion. The films were shipped to a warehouse in Berlin that fell into Russian hands after the war. From there they made their way to Moscow. In the mid-1960s a film exchange between France and the Soviet Union brought the negative back to France, although it would be 30 years before anybody opened the film cans and realized the treasure that lay inside.
The movie's title has always been a puzzle. Does it refer to the optimistic belief, propagated at the time, that the First World War would be "the war to end all wars"? Or to the general misconception that any war can settle political conflicts? Even more disheartening, perhaps it's the illusion that people can overcome their snobberies and animosities. In extreme situations people repeatedly have proven themselves capable of doing just that -- of putting aside matters of race, religion, nationality, and class to work together toward a common goal. But it never lasts; deep-rooted prejudices and hatreds always resurface. Only one thing is certain in Renoir's great pacifist movie: that prisoners will always try to escape, only to return to fight again.