“Grand Illusion” – Jean Renoir’s Pacifist Manifesto

Grand Illusion


Title: “Grand Illusion”

Release Date: 1937

Director: Jean Renoir

Cast: Erich von Stroheim, Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Dita Parlo



“Grand Illusion” by Jean Renoir is one of the most important French films. The director managed to create a universal masterpiece, which, set in the reality of World War I, exposes any armed conflict, stripping it of its higher national rationale. The film does not play on the emotions of the viewer with images of violence and crime. On the contrary, it appeals to the cool intellect: it presents the existence of soldiers in captivity, having plenty of time and opportunity to observe and draw conclusions. As a result, it turns out that stronger than national divisions are the bonds resulting from social hierarchy.

“Grand Illusion” – the story of a certain escape

“Grand Illusion” from 1937 is a film that Jean Renoir loosely based on the memoirs of Armand Pinsard. An ensign and then general, he served in the French Air Force during World War I. As many as seven times he was taken prisoner and as many times he escaped from it. However, this was not the only source for the film’s script, the second turned out to be Jean de Vallieres’ novel. “Grand Illusion” consists of four narrative episodes. The first is the story of the downing of a French plane by German Major von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). The rescued pilots Captain de Boïeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) are invited by the major to a celebratory dinner.

The second sequence depicts the protagonists’ stay in the Hallbach camp, where, together with other prisoners, they try to dig an underground tunnel through which they would escape from captivity, but just before the work is completed, they are deported to another location. Another episode features the captives’ stay in the mountain fortress at Wintersborn, managed by Major Rauffenstein. Thanks to the dedication of Captain de Boïeldieu, distracting the pursuit, Maréchal and Rosental (Marcel Dalio) escape from the camp. The last part, meanwhile, depicts the fugitives’ stay with a German highlander woman who lost her husband during the war. Thanks to the woman, the men manage to recover and then escape to Switzerland. Before that, however, love is born between her and Maréchal, and the soldier promises his beloved that he will return for her when the war is over.

Grand Illusion movie review

“Grand Illusion” or the illusion of the ideology of war

“Grand Illusion” is a movie that at every level is an unmasking of all ideologies that rationalize armed conflict. This is indicated by the very title of the picture: “La Grande Illusion”, which in literal translation means as much as “the great illusion”. This illusion, namely, is the idea that people fight wars with each other because of natural national differences and related conflicting interests. Renoir shows that similar antagonisms are much weaker than one might think. In the film, people of different nations tend to solidarize rather than divide.

English prisoners of war preparing a prison performance on hearing the news of the French recapture of Fort Douaumont near Verdun from the Germans enthusiastically sing the “Marseillaise.” A German guard, seeing that Maréchal, locked in solitary confinement, is falling into depression, surreptitiously leaves him a harmonica on his bunk, the sound of which snaps him out of his lethargy. The widow of a German soldier, meanwhile, hides French fugitives – soldiers of the enemy army – in her house.

The dividing line between people, on the other hand, runs quite elsewhere in “Grand Illusion”: along the social hierarchy. The elites stick together and do not find agreement with their compatriots of lower states. Captain de Boïeldieu is a French count who has more in common with the German major von Rauffenstein, who comes from an aristocratic family, than with his cellmates. The man behaves at a distance from lower-ranking soldiers, addresses them formally and wears white gloves.

Grand Illusion film analysis

Maréchal, on the other hand, understands almost wordlessly with Rosental, a soldier of Jewish origin, who appreciates the charms of good food and willingly shares the food parcels he receives with his fellow prisoners. The most striking illustration of this gulf between the social low and the elite is the scene when everyone, including the guards with solemn tension open a large box – a gift from the Empress of Austria. Most of the soldiers – on both sides – are hoping for victuals and alcohol, which they will consume at a communal feast, meanwhile inside are books. The gift is therefore not appreciated, and is even taken as an insult and ends up at the stake. “To be killed in war is a tragedy for a plebeian; for us, it’s quite a good thing,” he says.

“Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” is also a masterpiece on the level of character portraits. The duo of aristocrats, Major von Rauffenstein and Captain de Boïeldieu, in particular, came off splendidly here. Despite the fact that formally the men are enemies, they very quickly find a common language with each other, even in the literal sense. For they savor conversation in English, which emphasizes their education and at the same time isolates them from the rest of the soldiers. Both are aware that they are representatives of a dying class, and that the war, which always accelerates social processes, will completely erase their leading role and the importance of their titles.

grand Illusion 1937

Erich von Stroheim created an exquisite performance in Renoir’s film, bringing out its almost tragic tones. He played a distinguished major who lives with memories of his pre-war life full of glitz, when he dined at the Parisian restaurant “Maxim’s”. When the character is forced to shoot at the captain and instead of being shot in the legs, he wounds him fatally in the stomach, he experiences this as a personal tragedy. Nevertheless, he concedes the point to de Boïeldieu, who states on his deathbed that “to be killed in a war is a tragedy for a plebeian; for us it is quite a good thing.” Honor is one of the most important values for von Rauffenstein, so as a tribute to the late captain, he cuts down his beloved geranium – the only flower in the entire fortress, which he had previously nurtured with care as a source of joy and beauty.

This scene can serve as a poetic summary of Renoir’s thoroughly realistic film. For, pacifist in spirit, the work “Grand Illusion” exposes not only the hypocritical face of war, but also the naive belief in the coming of a new era free of armed conflict. The instinct for life, love and the reflex of solidarity ultimately win out, but the war’s absurdity still hangs in the air, making Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece surprisingly contemporary.


„Kino klasyczne”, pod red. T. Lubelskiego, I. Sowińskiej i R. Syski, Kraków 2012.

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