As I work my way through more and more classic films, I am continually humbled by those teenage delusions of what I thought I knew about cinema. Chief amongst the revelations is my personal discovery of Jean Renoir. Six months ago, I couldn't name you a single film of his or even tell you that he was a director, yet after watching his masterpiece Rules of the Game and now this I find myself introduced to a man assuredly enshrined within the top ten directors of all time. How could I have missed his work for so long? I knew there were obscure auteurs out there for me to uncover from now until I die, but to have missed such a universally celebrated filmmaker? Oh well, it's best not to dwell on such nonsense and instead let me talk about this marvelous picture.
Made in 1937, Grand Illusion is a dense web of plots, many of which contradict the others. It's a war film that isn't really a war film, it's set in World War I but really about World War II (which had yet to start) and it shows the softer side of military officers while simultaneously exposing even this humanity as a relic of social misconceptions about war. Though the titular illusion concerns the quaint aristocratic notion of the nobility and gentlemanly quality of war, it applies to many aspects of early 20th century Europe (such as the belief that WWI would be "the war to end all wars"), as well as our preconceptions to the direction of the plot.
The film opens on Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), a aristocratic German pilot, who invites two French officers he shot down, Captain de Boeldieu and Lieutenant Maréchal, to lunch before sending them to a prisoner of war camp. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu have mutual acquaintances and exchange pleasantries, and soon Rauffenstein sends his captured foe care packages full of delicacies to keep him comfortable in the POW camp.
Boeldieu and Maréchal meet some old friends in the camp, and befriend Rosenthal, a nouveau-riche French Jew. In a subtle yet open attempt to dispel stereotypes (especially in the face of increasingly anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda), Renoir makes Rosenthal the kindest of the rich prisoners; he shares his own parcels amongst the "commoners" to ensure that no one starves.
Though rich, Rosenthal fits better with the Maréchal and the other commoners. Though they all have different jobs and lives, these men share enough experiences to form a kinship with one another. Boeldieu, on the other hand, regards himself as above the various camps the Germans place their prisoners, and hatches an escape plot seemingly because it's just something to do.
Boeldieu displays a streak of unlikely heroism in the escape; he plays the flute and dances about to distract the guards, giving the others time to escape. Eventually he makes it out of the camp with all of the guards after him and forces a reluctant Rauffenstein to shoot him.
The resulting scene, likely the film's most famous, is both touching and telling. Rauffenstein visits the dying Boeldieu in the hospital and apologizes for shooting him. After speaking a bit, Boeldieu tells his unlikely friend "For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and me, it's a good way out," and then mentions that he pities Rauffenstein for what life has in store for him after the war. Finally we understand why the French aristocrat gave his life for the commoners: he knew that this war would forever alter the social climate, that people would no longer buy into the outdated notion that war contained a certain nobility and that it served as a useful political tool. He committed suicide by cop out of fear of the new era.
All throughout the film Renoir explores his themes not only through the words of the characters but through his vibrant direction. In one extended long take, his camera lightly dances over Rauffenstein's personal effects before settling on the man himself, only to continue tracking throughout the room. In the smooth scan over Rauffenstein's odds and ends, we get a clearer picture of the man than any forced expositional background could convey (the most telling and amusing of which is a pistol resting on a copy of Casanova, signalling him to be both a lover and a fighter). In another scene, Renoir shows another aspect of his examination of racism and anti-Semitism when he focuses on an African prisoner in one of the camps. The other men work alongside him and seem to accept him but never speak to him, even when he attempts to make conversation.
The final moments of the film are perhaps a bit too upbeat. In their trek out of Germany, Maréchal falls in love with a German farm girl, and in the end he and Rosenthal make it out of Germany into Switzerland. However, just because a film is bleak does not mean it requires a bleak ending, and the character of Elsa opens up yet another avenue in which to subvert conventions. Left widowed and without brothers by French soldiers, she nevertheless welcomes these escaped POWs into her home, feeds them and keeps them safe. She represents the final stage of war, where grief and rage bleed out and leave emptiness behind.
Though it may not be on the level of his 1939 satire Rules of the Game, Grand Illusion is no less groundbreaking, subversive and utterly brilliant. Even ignoring its multiple directorial flourishes, Renoir crafted one of the most original and influential films ever made, a searing indictment of war and the rich who treat it like a game. Like Rules of the Game, it places all of this social commentary into an endlessly watchable treat. If you haven't seen it, you're missing out.