La Grande Illusion (1937) Poster

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A Humanist Classic
Masoo31 January 2002
Grand Illusion is a movie about class that doesn't hate anyone. How often does that happen? Yes, there are namby-pamby movies that "show all sides" and bore everyone with their non-existent point-of-view, but that's not what I mean. And, of course, there are plenty of movies about class that reveal their biases from the start; I'm rather fond of Eat the Rich movies, myself. But Grand Illusion is about class without dismissing any of its characters. The aristocrats whose world is disappearing are presented as tragic figures, stuck in a code of life that is rapidly becoming meaningless. Both aristocrats know their time is past; the French one accepts this as probably a good thing, the German one doesn't (and blames the French one's sentiments on the French Revolution), but they both know their way of life is soon to be forgotten. And it would be easy for Renoir, when he made the film in the mid-30s a French communist with proletarian sympathies, to demonize these two. But he doesn't; he allows them their humanity, which is the most characteristic feature of Renoir movies in any event (he is the great humanist of movie history).

Nor does he show the collapse of the old way as an unfortunate preface to chaos. The bourgeois characters are good people. The world might be safe in their hands, as safe as in any other hands at least (except for the propensity among nations for war). All of the middle and lower-class characters in the movie are presented as people, not stereotypes. But Renoir doesn't accomplish this by collapsing all class boundaries into some homogenous universalism. These characters remain trapped within their class, and their class is clear to the viewer. The movie is not about the absence of class but about the crushing ironies of the very real existence of class in the lives of the characters. To show all classes without condescension, while retaining a particular point of view (that while people are good, it's best that the aristocratic world is in decline), is pretty amazing.

In Grand Illusion, the nominal hero is working/middle-class, but the upper class isn't evil and the lower class isn't romanticized or dismissed. And it's all accomplished in such a seamless way that many, if not most, first-time viewers might easily think it was a fine movie but something less than great. It sneaks up on you, and more than just about any film you can name, rewards multiple viewings.
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How language separates us
Henry-5927 August 1999
What makes Grand Illusion a great movie, and the reason that some of us keep returning to it, is that it can't be reduced to a single simple proposition, the way that recent war movies like Platoon ("war bad," to quote Tarantino's synopsis) or Saving Private Ryan ("war senseless") can. It's easy to be sentimental about war, even while deploring it, by focusing on the horror of it or by making heroes out of those who are forced to fight. Renoir deals instead with the far more complex mesh of differences and alliances that separate and divide our characters. And while his main characters all have a clear class/national/religious identity, he makes much more out of them than just sociological categories.

But trying to explain why Grand Illusion is such a great movie by charting all the conflicting bonds of nationality, class, religion, etc. doesn't explain why the movie is so powerful. To me it is in those scenes in which language either separates our characters (as when Marechal tries and fails to tell the British prisoners about the tunnel or asks why de Boeldieu uses "vous") or unites them (as when von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu speak in English or the English officer (in drag) sings the Marseillaise or when Marechal finally learns a little German). In these cases, Renoir uses language-without hitting us over the head to make the point-to illustrate the conflict between his ideal of sympathy between humans and the differences of class, nationality and religion.

Now I know that this sounds just as dry and academic as other attempts to explain Grand Illusion. Maybe it is; the movie really does not need to be explained to be enjoyed. But these are the scenes that, for whatever reason, have always made the greatest impression on me.
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Spondonman28 May 2006
Every time I watch this I find something else I hadn't thought of before, every viewing is an augmented experience. Things I hadn't spotted at 11, 19, 22 etc I spotted last night, mostly inconsequential but still adding to the picture 36 years after my first time. That to me is the difference between great films and Great films, one of the reasons why this ostensibly simple movie is one of the all time Greats.

And it is simple (the simplest things are usually the best) - boring to some people who sadly will never understand its logic and magic - an absorbing prisoner of war tale that is also a prisoner of class tale. It defines that class loyalties are more meaningful than patriotism even if not always practical, and that to those who consider themselves to have breeding it's far more important to have "blood" than capital. Boldieu and Rauffenstein embody this, they both knew their chivalric world order was being gradually diminished - the next war will and was led by people without breeding, types like Marechal and Rosenthal who fought on. The most significant borders are not between countries, races, religions, sexes or ages but those between the classes. Renoir was at his most inspired with Illusion, with so many memorable images and set-pieces, an engrossing storyline even when down to trying to say blue eyes in German or being posh by gossipping in English, and fantastic acting by all concerned. Everything has already been covered and better in previous posts, but I would add I don't understand why Regle du jeu is the Renoir film that gets the kudos today - unless by being deliberately more obscure it appeals to influential Artheads.

The French film I love the most.
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Classic film on the death of ancient regimes
cho cho21 March 2000
In the old European order, pre-WWI, one nation's aristocracy made war on another's not out of love for king and country or hatred for the enemy, but out of a sense of honor and duty. War was what they did, these aristocrats of l'ancien regime. Their castles in the air, their noble worldview, their time-honored way--all would crumble, as they very well knew, if the line between the rabble and themselves were allowed to continue to blur. The masses had new and different loyalties.

"La Grande Illusion" in 1914 was the hope that that old order could be preserved in the face of surging democracy and noveau-riche power. Jean Renoir's film presents us with an irony: the martial elites of France and Germany needed the war to vouchsafe their very identities, and yet that conflict would prove their undoing. Whatever side won, the hoi polloi would gain the upper hand.

Restored from its original camera negative, the 1937 French film now on DVD sparkles like new. The restoration lets us see that nothing is dated about this work of genius, even if its POW-camp situations today seem stock and its characters stereotypes of nationality and class. The fine acting, the deft pacing, and the fluid camerawork make for a film that could have been produced last year. The whispered subtext, the nuanced conflicts, and the ironic complexity make for a film that is timeless.

The subtext is the eternal tension between "in the air" and "on the ground," "on high" and "here below," "from a distance" and "up close and personal." From a distance, war is no more rancorous than a chess game, with national boundaries as artificial as the squares on a chessboard. Up close and personal, war separates humans from their lives and aspirations, lovers from their beloveds.

The old elites loved nothing but their class and its accoutrements. It was peasant stock and noveau riche who belted out national anthems and honored the borders which in wartime could sever lover from lover but, paradoxically, also shield prison-camp escapees who made it across them to sanctuary. Renoir's genius was that he could show that an emergent new order, manifestly better on the ground, comes at a steep price, tragically, in the air.
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"Good company" is harder to make than "good war"
chromo19 May 2000
From Jean Renoir's autobiography, My Life and My Films (1974):

"If a French farmer should find himself dining at the same table as a French financier, those two Frenchmen would have nothing to say to each other, each being unconcerned with the other's interests. But if a French farmer meets a Chinese farmer they will find any amount to talk about. This theme of the bringing together of men through their callings and common interests has haunted me all my life and does so still. It is the theme of 'La Grande Illusion' and it is present, more or less, in all my works."

In a sense, 'La Grande Illusion' is a counterpoint in an argument of stories: in one corner, Jean Renoir & friends singing about humor and good cheer; in the other, a handful of Germans demanding bigotry and murderous pride.

My opinion of the movie is quite high, but I think, from having read that book and a few others, that the real accomplishments in 'Illusion,' artistic and thematic, come directly from Renoir's deep affection of people and our loves.

To live your life with love and humor takes thoughtful delicacy. It's much easier to close your heart, fence yourself in, and never have a true friend in your life: and such closed-hearted people are inevitably the ones who coolly turn the political screws until the world bursts into famine and war.

It was too much to think that 'La Grande Illusion' would prevent the then coming war, as Renoir hoped. But to look at the story again, as a lyrical anti-fascist statement and a call to weigh friendship and good company over nationalism (of any sort), that I think is where the story gets really good.

The modern era continues to give us a real choice. We can kill, without effort, to subdue the stranger. Or we can join the stranger for a meal and a conversation, and become friends. Which of these is the true vision of the world's "leaders"? Cold hearts, cold future.

Something to think about as you watch the movie.
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Its Historical Significance Is No Illusion
Lechuguilla12 October 2006
Franklin Roosevelt said of it: "Everyone who believes in democracy should see this film". Mussolini banned it in Italy, and Hitler's Ministry of Propaganda banned it in Nazi Germany. The film vanished during WWII, and was thought to have been destroyed. Then it was recovered in 1946, but in an altered state. Decades would then pass before the original negative could be confirmed.

The Nazis hated the film because of its pacifist, anti-war, theme. The setting for the film is Germany in 1914, during WWI. Germans capture several French officers and take them to a POW camp, specifically for officers. After several escape attempts, the French officers get shuffled off to a presumably escape proof castle, run by Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), a flamboyant German officer with a forbidding persona.

Unlike other war movies, "La Grande Illusion" shows no actual combat, and the number of deaths is minimal. The film's tone is surprisingly lighthearted. Writer/Director Renoir conveys a sense of community among the French prisoners, despite their differences in social class. We see them several times sitting around a table eating, and chatting amiably. The cordiality between prisoners and their jailers is also surprising. It's not exactly a hug fest, but the predominant feeling among the men is respect for fellow officers, even if those officers are your enemy. None of the French or German officers want war; it's just their "duty", when called on.

In most of the film, scenes take place in small rooms or in that castle. Toward the film's end, outdoor vistas provide a visual contrast. Except at the film's end, I was amazed at how drab the surroundings are. Room furnishings are unadorned and contain the barest of essentials. Tables and floors are made of simple wood. The clothes are dreary and depressing. The stone castle is dank and forbidding. Music is made with simple instruments, like a harmonica or a flute. Of course, given the time period and considering the setting, such drabness and simplicity are not surprising. But the contrast with today's complex world of modern luxuries, that we take for granted, is striking. The film's B&W cinematography accentuates the drab environment.

The story can be a bit confusing in the first half, because the relationship between the jailers and the prisoners is so unusual. Viewers need to give the film wide latitude on this. Watching the film a second time helps clarify who is doing what to whom. The plot is easier to follow in the second half.

The film's acting is credible. I especially liked the performance of von Stroheim, all decked out in that imposing uniform, that monocle, and with that stiff bearing.

"La Grande Illusion" is an unusual "war" film, one that had real significance during WWII. For this reason alone, it deserves to be seen.
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A Vision of Reality the Way it Shouldn't Be...
Don-10220 August 1999
It is a wonder to see a film from the 1930's so definite in its view and opinions, yet so touching and revelatory. Jean Renoir's GRAND ILLUSION is a film of great importance, one that improves with each viewing. Having just finished the picture again for the first time in some 7 years, I was struck by its freshness. It is an Anti-War film set during World War I that is something to watch. It demands intense viewing.

This is a French work of art by the great Renoir, who would make his most acclaimed film, RULES OF THE GAME, two years later. If you ask me, GRAND ILLUSION is the superior pic and holds up immeasurably better. The small doses of humor and original characters in this film foresee the classic "shooting party" of RULES OF THE GAME. With this movie, Renoir uses prisoners-of-war and the ludicrous element of war so prevalent in early 20th Century Europe and merges them into a film not unlike a play (an extremely well-written play). The viewer has no illusions as to whether or not a war is happening. We happen not to see any battles or gunplay, rather, the human element between men and women who are not so different no matter their ethnicity.

Renoir's camera is an incredible tool used throughout. He probes the characters at the various prison camps with some smooth dolly shots and brilliant use of focus and pull-backs. It seems like an extension of his hand, much like his father's paintings. One striking scene has some weary soldiers singing the French "Las Marseilles" after getting third hand knowledge of a French victory over their German captors. Any scene with Erich von Stroheim is interesting because he is human and not some mindless German dictator so many people would come to know at the time of the film's release. He is a broken man, scarred by war and looking to gain a friend in the enemy. This is rare.

As far as prison camp films go, these guys seem to have it easy, however the fact that they are officers gives us some explanation. The story-line effectively moves from escape attempts to human realization of the situation they are in. Parts of it reminded me of STALAG 17, Billy Wilder's 1953 classic no doubt inspired by GRAND ILLUSION. This is Wilder's film without the Hollywood touch, realist and sometimes drab. Abel Gance's J'ACCUSE would follow a year later. If you want to see some anti-WWI films with two completely opposite methods of warning beneath the surface, see these two flicks back to back.

The illusion of reality is shattered by war, Renoir is telling us. If only it could be as simple as those amazing shots of the countryside from inside the German woman's house: a breathtaking, simple look at a peaceful scene the way it should be.

RATING: ***1/2
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A Timeless Classic
Snow Leopard21 June 2001
Jean Renoir's classic "La Grande Illusion" has something to recommend it to anyone - there is fine acting, directing, writing, and photography, and a story filled with memorable characters who are involved in action, suspense, and drama, with some comic parts and even, later in the film, some romance. All of it fits together perfectly to create a timeless and very satisfying experience.

The movie takes place during World War I, and is often considered an anti-war film, but the themes about humanity, relationships, loyalties, and identities are all timeless and go beyond any mere political statement. The interplay between persons of different nationalities and classes, thrown together by the war, leads to good drama and makes some profound points about human nature. The story primarily follows three Frenchmen who are taken prisoner by the Germans, showing us how they manage to deal with their confinement, and allowing us to watch their disappointments and their attempts to escape. The other main character is a German prison camp commander with whom they become friendly, raising complicated questions of loyalty and duty.

The character studies are excellent, and all the fine acting and directing get the most of out the possibilities. The settings are convincing and help the viewer feel what it was like to be in camp with the prisoners, sharing their boredom and their longing for freedom. The plot itself is interesting, and has some exciting moments, but the main emphasis is on what the characters learn about themselves and about humanity in general. There are many thoughtful scenes and some nicely defined secondary characters that round out the picture.

This is a fine movie, deserving of its reputation, and one that should appeal highly to anyone who enjoys classic cinema.
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The first great and unsurpassed film of prisoners of war, focussing on gentlemanly soldiery
clanciai5 April 2019
For me, this is Jean Renoir's ultimate masterpiece, although he made many. Critics generally prefer "La règle du jeu" a few years later, which maybe reveals even greater virtuoso direction, but "La grande illusion" is deeper and more human and made with considerable compassion. What is the great illusion really? It's difficult to pinpoint this, but it has to do with the silent gentlemen's agreement between officers in war. The drama lies in the relationship between Erich von Stroheim, in the finest acting performance of his life, and Pierre Fresnay, today almost only remembered for this film, as the French officer, He and Jean Gabin with many others end up in a German prison camp during the first year of the first world war and spends the following years trying indefatigably to escape. This is the first great film of prisoners of war and perhaps the greatest. The first half of the film just shows off their ways of making their life in a prison camp as endurable as possible, there is a hilarious scene when they provide some entertainment dressed up as women, but the second half becomes more serious, as the most incorrigible prisoners, like Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay, are transferred to a prison fortress in the mountains. They have met Erich von Stroheim before, but here he is now two years later a handicapped disillusioned commandant, who grieves for his loss of capacity to fight in the war. He and Fresnay find each other, they have had the same mistress in Paris, and there is a deep a mutual respect between them for each other, which makes Fresnay reluctant to follow his fellows on a daring escape, since he knows Stroheim is relying on his word as a gentleman.

But the greatest golden character of the film lies in its extreme realism of almost a documentary character. The prisoners and officers speak French, German, English and Russian, and the life inside the prison camp is caught with an authenticity which is baffling in its natural spontaneity, which is all due to Renoir's wonderful direction. The film with its great story couldn't have been made more convincing.
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"I think we can do nothing to stop the march of time"
ackstasis11 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Re-reading my review of 'Stalag 17 (1951),' I see that I referred to it as the template for every prisoner-of-war film that followed, including 'The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)' and 'The Great Escape (1963).' Once again, my relative inexperience with cinema seems to have caught me out; this film from Jean Renoir uses a similar formula, and predates it by almost fifteen years. Billy Wilder must certainly have seen 'The Grand Illusion (1937)' – since it features Erich von Stroheim, whom he himself used in 'Five Graves to Cairo (1943)' and 'Sunset Blvd. (1950)' – and so Renoir's influence is present throughout. It's a WWI film, but we see no combat. Whereas most anti-war films illustrate their stance by pounding the all-too-familiar adage "war is hell" through images of death and destruction, Renoir's approach is considerably more understated. He highlight the futility of war through human interaction, both between the captured French prisoners and between the Germans who watch over them.

Just what is "the grand illusion?" Renoir derived his film title from "The Great Illusion," a 1909 non-fiction book by Norman Angell, in which the author argued for the impossibility of a large-scale European war for economic reasons. That WWI broke out five years later obviously proved detrimental to Angell's arguments, and Renoir deliberately plays on the irony of this knowledge. More significant, however, is that the book was released in a revised edition in 1933, the general argument modified to assert the utter utility of waging war, a theme that supports Renoir's stance: this would not be the "war that ends all wars." With WWII just around the corner, there's an bitter urgency to what the film has to say; just three years later, the director would be fleeing France. The topicality of the film's message proved especially successful overseas, and 'The Grand Illusion' was unusually nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1939.

Of course, no Jean Renoir film is complete without some class-related social critique. Most striking in this regard is the relationship between Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Capt. von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), from which, scandalously, it is implied that one's class forms a more binding camaraderie than that of nationality. Boeldieu and Rauffenstein, both multilingual upper-class aristocrats who sense their social dominance is drawing to an end, seek solace in each other's company, and feel closer to one another than to the lower-class men of their own armies. However, there is hope in Renoir's vision of society. The age of aristocracy is coming to a close, and a new social order – in which all men are accepted as comrades – is at the cusp of existence. Boeldieu accepts this inevitability, and, despite the initial suspicion of his fellow Frenchmen, ultimately offers his life to allow two "lower-class" companions to escape. He betrays von Rauffenstein in favour of duty to his country, even if his death provides only temporary relief from the inescapable futility of war.
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Not sure now what Renoir is actually saying
jacabiya20 August 2011
Just saw it again on TCM, and now I see things in the film that make me question my high regard and admiration for it. This classic film has a special glow of humanity, which makes it unique and instinctively accessible. One can understand why it was such a hit in 1937. At the same time, this is not a surrealist film or a satire as the title might suggest, but an interpretation of horrific events from the point view of a humanist, and in that sense you get the inspirational message which seeks to outweigh other issues, but if you stop and think about the whole thing you end up appalled by some of the conclusions you might end up with. If it had successfully advanced the theme that war is hell and that men seek to preserve their humanity under these conditions, fine. But that is not the end result: the balance between the anti-war message and the idea that WWI was a gentlemen's war and that it brought the best out of men somehow leans on screen towards the latter and lends the film to negative interpretations. Renoir refuses to openly condemn war nor show its ugly face but by implication. And you can't say that wasn't Renoir's style, given his in-your-face condemnation of the attitudes of French's aristocracy prior to WWII in The Rules of the Game. Renoir emphasizes the men being pals and patriotic, eating well, joking, and dancing, which is what Renoir as a humanist understands men wish to do instead of fight, but the lack of any substantial sense of horror and suffering makes for an unbalanced film. The suffering is almost all psychological (life away from home and wife, loneliness) but it is hardly felt, except in the part of the story with the German woman, which is very successfully told. The physical suffering is not exposed at all, except for von Stroheimm's ailments, which are discussed tangentially, and even that suffering is mentioned but not felt. Renoir seems to expect the audience to presuppose the horror and the suffering. Renoir's conclusions in this film are confusing, naive and might even be considered downright insulting, particularly in the historic period this film was made. The problem might not be in Renoir's point of view or intentions but in what he actually put on the screen. So all in all, I'm not sure what Renoir is saying in this film, and therefore can not regard it as highly as I once did. I also agree with other reviewers that Renoir's technique is extraordinary but that the script is a mess. All in all, if you trust Renoir and stay with the humanistic theme and try to avoid any other interpretation you will still feel this is a great film, if not, then you will have serious reservations. I for one now have doubts.
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One of greatest anti-war films with memorable acting from Stroheim, Gavin and Fresnay.
ma-cortes4 December 2009
During WWI two officers are imprisoned , lieutenant Marichal (Jean Gavin), and cultured captain named De Boeldueu (Pierre Fresnay). Later on, they meet other inmates as a rich Jew banker named Roshental(Marcel Dalio). Some time later, they meet again in a prison-castle commanded by aristocrat official Van Rauffenstein(Erich Von Stroheim in spinal collar).

This is an excellent classic anti-war and deals about friendship, comradeship, and human relations. A heart-breaker and elegiac movie in the way it shows war undercutting and qualities of prison life. Interesting performances enhance an eloquent screenplay by Charles Spaak . It's a moving reflexion on high and low class , about war and death. Time has not diminished its qualities nor its charming to the emotions. Exceptional Erich Von Stroheim , remarkable in a self-effecting performance and perfect Jean Gavin as good official and mechanic in civilian life ; furthermore the comic relief by Carette. Fine musical score by Joseph Kosma , including emotive ¨Marseillaise ¨during theatrical acting. The movie was deservedly nominated best foreign film and won special prize of festival of Venice.

The film is excellently screen-written and directed by Jean Renoir who approach the intensity and feel of his best works. Son of painter impressionist Auguste Renoir , was perhaps the best of French directors . At its initial French period he directed classics as ¨Boudu saved drowning, Rules of the game, Marseillaise, Day in the country¨ and of course ¨Grand Illusion¨ in which his optimism remains relentless . Renoir was in Hollywood for seven years, where he made ¨Swamp water, Southerner, Diary of chambermaid, This land is mine,and Woman on the beach¨. He returned France where directed other classic films as ¨Carrozza dóro, Testament Dr Cordelier, Picnic on the grass, Vanishing corporal¨ and several others. His films have influenced on Francois Truffaut, Luchino Visconti, Satyajit Ray , among them. Rating : above average, an extraordinary and sensational film.
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Humanism that transcends all barriers !!!
avik-basu18899 September 2016
'La Grande Illusion' is one of those films that reaffirm a film lover's belief that cinema as an art form can be used by filmmakers to bring people together.

The screenplay for the film written by Renoir and Charles Spaak is extremely deep and multi layered. Although the film is set during the WW1 era, the timing of the making and release of the film is very important. This was released when the Nazi party in Germany was becoming more and more powerful and another global war was imminent. I can't help but think that this film was Renoir's attempt to make people stray away from the extremism that they were getting influenced by. Although it didn't achieve its intended objective, one can't help but admire the artist's intentions.

If one has to summarise 'La Grande Illusion' in one phrase, I think the phrase to be used is 'the power of humanism'. Renoir loves every single character in the film. Not just the French soldiers, even the German soldiers get treated with respect. The Germans are not stereotypical caricatures as is found in some other films of this era. The German officers treat their French prisoners with kindness. This shows Renoir understood that there were ordinary, innocent German people who were caught in the middle of the wars being instigated by the politicians in power.

Apart from underlining the humanism and the similarity between the soldiers on all sides, the film also works on other themes. The film explores the changing times. We see the men who have been detached from the outside world due to the war feel surprised when they hear that women are keeping their hair short. One of them equates this appearance with the appearance of a boy. This is clearly Renoir commenting upon the progress women were making at the time in trying to gain equality. We also get the angle of the changing nature of the class distinctions. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu belonged to the higher classes. They understand and respect each other even though they belong to Germany and France respectively. We see them reminisce about the old times and talk about how they feel out of place in a fast changing world where the class distinctions are getting distorted as they embark on an era where people belonging to lower classes as well as Jews will be equal to them. We also get a subtle introspection on the concept of masculinity in this changing society.

Renoir through his visuals shows how all the characters are at times literally and at times thematically trapped by the war. We get his signature shots of frames within frame to metaphorically imply that the characters are trapped. Every character, be it French or German is trapped mentally and physically by the war. Even a high officer like Rauffenstein feels trapped in his claustrophobic chamber. They are all detached from the outside world. They want freedom, but are apprehensive about whether they will be ready for what awaits them on the outside once they get their 'freedom'. This internal apprehension of not being ready to live on the outside reminded me of 'The Shawshank Redemption'.

Like Powell & Pressburger did with 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp', Renoir is bidding farewell to an era where even wars were fought with a gentlemanly attitude. Although he does touch upon the class distinctions and some other aspects that plagued that earlier era, but he is primarily concerned with the humanism of that characters. So, we see the kindness between soldiers belonging to different nations. This can lead to a a criticism that the film is a bit overly romanticised and is a bit of a wish fulfillment exercise as it doesn't depict the brutalities of war. But I think a brutally real account of WW1 was never Renoir's vision. In the midst of the rise of the Nazi Party and the huge possibility of another war, he wanted to make a film that makes the viewers renounce extremism and in the process instill the spirit of a unified Europe, no matter how unrealistic it may seem. This is why I think 'La Grande Illusion' will work brilliantly as a double feature with Kubrick's 'Paths of Glory'. While the first shows soldiers from different nations treating each other with kindness, the latter shows French officers being monstrously merciless to their own French colleagues.

Renoir's visual style is beyond impressive. He uses very little editing in most scenes, instead he constantly keeps moving the camera to reveal other characters in the room or to reveal new parts of the interior which were earlier not visible in the frame. He also uses deep focus effectively to make the visual language of the film very character-inclusive in the sense that all the characters find importance in a scene. This inclusive nature of his style executed by tracking shots is epitomised by the famous scene involving the singing of 'La Marseillaise', a scene where he practically uses no cuts.

Performance wise, I'll give special mention to Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim and Pierre Fresnay.

'La Grande Illusion' is a film that I can watch over and over again and get something new out of it on each viewing. It is rich in humanism, thematic depth and Renoir's brilliant directorial skills. The title of the film itself is layered and open to many interpretations. What was the grand illusion? Is it the illusion that one can achieve freedom from the suffering by escaping from prison camps or is it the illusion that the world that awaits these soldiers after the war ends will be the same as the one that they left behind? Or is war itself the grand illusion that creates barriers between human beings who are all the same, but get divided based on geographical borders? Maybe it is one of them, maybe it is all of them.
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"Out there, children play soldier...In here, soldiers play like children."
elvircorhodzic24 April 2016
LA GRANDE ILLUSION is one of the biggest accomplishment of French and world cinema. Anti-war theme is shown in a rather strange way. Senselessness of war is the essence. At a frivolous (human) and non-violent way emerged the war illusion. Human relations during the war, the loss of any meaning and value. This is a strange story about human relationships in a time of war.

Prisoners of war camps. The camps in the war could be called hell on Earth. Here are just illusions. Renoir gives us a work of art that explores the depth and complexity of human relationships. One difficult and undesirable topics is presented with a lot of modesty and charm.

In the film's social status is reduced to a minimum. The soldiers are essential and a little crazy. The relationship between prisoners and soldiers is almost friendly. Full of patience and respect. War is man's ultimate folly, for it brings him losses that are permanent, and victories that are pyrrhic and short lived.

Scenography and acting are excellent. Watch Gabin (Lieutenant Maréchal) and Fresnay (Captain de Boeldieu) is a real pleasure. Erich von Stroheim (Captain - Major von Rauffenstein) is quite realistic figure and around him is spinning an illusion and absurdity of everyday life. Dita Parlo as Elsa appears briefly but leaves a strong impression. There are so many different and important characters who acting with a lot of freedom and creativity. Renoir reveals every aspect of his characters.

This film is full of humanism, heroism, drama and adventure. All of these features are mixed in a war illusion in which is hard to believe, but it's very nice to see and feel. A little comedy of manners is welcome, romance also.

Whether it is or not, the film tells us that men can act nobly, even when they are a part of something that is not itself noble. Mankind must rise from ruin. Unfortunately, to this day all is one La Grande Illusion.
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So,I finally saw it and of course I thought it was one of the best films ever!!!
anton-64 January 2002
I have tried to get this film for months on the criterion collection but it seems impossible here in Sweden(Maybe not impossible,you can order it on Amazon but that´s to expensive).So when I finally found it on video this is what I say about it:

This anti-war masterpiece film is really ONE OF THE GREATEST FILMS EVER.I almost liked it as much as seven samurai.It´s a about a group of French prisoners during the world war one.

The performances is simply some of the best I have seen(Jean Gabin Erich von Stroheim...).The cinematography is beautiful,great script but I guess i was most impressed by the direction by Jean Renoir.

I don´t think that I have been more touched by a film then this.It has such a deep humanity.A poetic film that should be seen by every one.Also remember that I have only seen this film once and it could be in my top 20 over the best films ever and when I watch it again it could be in top 3.

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Class and the Great War
kimmb19 September 2002
Warning: Spoilers
I had to watch this movie as part of my graduate film class, and I didn't have terribly high hopes. I took French classes for five years, and my experience with French movies mostly involved Gerard Depardieu in some state of undress and many cameo appearances by disrobed ladies.

But this wasn't bad...perhaps partly because it was made in 1937, before taking your clothes off onscreen was such a common occurence.

This is, ultimately, a class picture. If you know anything about World War I, you know that a lot of the class ideals about upper class gentility and the way an aristocrat behaves died in the trenches. The war was a great leveller, and that leveling is what is showcased here.

You never see the actual war. This isn't All Quiet on the Western Front. You only see some of the French officer POWs, and their treatment at the hands of their German captors. If you're familiar with war movies, you might be surprised at how cushy these prisoners have it--World War II certainly did not exhibit this kind of easy-going "don't escape now, you said you wouldn't" kind of attitude. But this was a different time, remember, when gentlemen still behaved as such, and those of your social standing were your equals, regardless of nationality.

The unlikely friendship that develops between the Frenchman de Boeldieu and the German von Rauffenstein comes out of this class mentality. They are the upper class that is slowly dying out, due to the large number of lower and working class men that are entering the army and gaining some amount of money and respectability. It is the true emergence of the middle class, and the end of the "grand illusion" that was the importance of "old money". Fellow Frenchmen Marechal and de Boeldieu can never truly be friends, even though their nationality would lead you to accept their friendship over one between supposed enemies--Marechal is working-class, a mechanic. "Your gloves, your tobacco, everything seems to come between us," he tells de Boeldieu.

De Boeldieu does, in the end, sacrifice himself for his countryman, but not simply because it is the patriotic and French thing to do. "For a man of the people, it is terrible to die in war. For you, for me, it's a good solution," he says to von Rauffenstien. For the upper classes, this was truly the way they, and their way of life, died. The men that emerged, like Marechal, were the ones who would go on to shape the world we inhabit today.

Wonderful performances all around, especially from von Stroheim. Truly overall a fairly great movie, and much preferable to seeing Gerard with no clothes.
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Island of civility in a sea of barbarism
jillmillenniumgirllevin5 February 2017
Warning: Spoilers
As the critic Walter Benjamin reminds us, no civilization without barbarism, no enlightenment without inhumanity. So it is in Grand Illusion. The civilization lies in the camaraderie among the prisoners; the barbarism, offstage in the trenches where so many of the Lost Generation were slaughtered. Renoir's business, as always, is with the warm, the human, the civilized. Here he underlines that camaraderie by including "the Jew," whom he exempts from the worst of French anti-Semitism, and the members of the working class whose technical skills have made them pilots. Dalio is wonderful as "the Jew"; Gabin no less so as the former "mechanic." Fresnais and von Stroheim, the aristocratic career soldiers, hold themselves aloof, and experience the warmth ironically at best; not without bitterness, they agree that the war has put an end to heir world. A masterpiece among Renoir's masterpieces, it speaks to us almost as powerfullhy as it did to its first audiences. As we watch, it lets us believe in a tiny, imperiled, and almost unimaginable island of civilization where Gabin and "the Jew" can make common cause. But not without the reminder of barbarism: the guns pointed at the end by the frustrated German soldiers. Civilization, barbarism: Renoir understands both, and as always, celebrates the first without overlooking its second.
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A Gentlemen's War
gentendo12 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Renoir uses the element of directing to expose the predominant theme of this film: friendships are what sustain human life. Rather than choosing to focus on the suffering and angst of war, Renoir hones in on the humane aspects of brotherly love and kindness to display this message. This is revealed from the very beginning. When French pilots are captured behind enemy lines by the Germans, they are taken to prison amongst other nationalities where all are treated with respect. It seems more like a gentlemen's war in this regard. Renoir establishes this veneration by showing the veteran prisoners warning the newcomers of material confiscation. They do this by playfully singing a song about "hiding your valuables." Renoir further directs the viewer's attention to the theme of friendship by showing that although the prisoners come from different backgrounds (i.e. occupations, interests, nationalities) they still can gather together in a welcoming environment to eat a home-cooked meal. They also help one another support the cause of escape by digging a tunnel under the barracks. Even under the direction of choosing the title of the film, Renoir ironically suggests that the grand illusion of war is war itself. War is what creates a violent façade over what matters most—human relationships.

Again this theme presents itself when the main character, Marechal (a Frenchmen), attempts to give information to an incoming caught Englishmen regarding an escaping tunnel in one of the barracks. Even though there is a language barrier and neither one of them understand each other, the attempt was made and further contributes to the spirit of unification and friendship. Through Renoir's sense of direction, he deliberately eliminates any prejudice between race and military status and in turn establishes a wonderful connection between all of the characters.

The most powerful moment in the film that completely seals the theme is when Renoir romantically brings Marechal and a German widow together in a Romeo & Juliet type manner. Despite their countries fighting in a war with each other, they see beyond the hatred and find love. It is this love that clinches the highest form of friendship.
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Both expert and inept
Qanqor13 March 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I've just finished watching this film twice. Initially as my first ever viewing of it, and then again with the commentary track on. So it's quite fresh in my mind. And, with the benefit of the commentary, I don't think there's a lot that I missed.

I'm still wrestling with my reaction to the film. There was much in the film that was skillfully done and rewarding. Some moving and thought-provoking themes. Some superb camera work. Some fine performances. Some memorable sequences. A lot of good movie making.

And yet, on the whole, I find myself dissatisfied. Because as expertly done as many aspects of the film are, there are others where it is simply dismal. Its structure is a fiasco. Its plot a jumbled mess. Events which are played very significantly turn out to have no significance at all, and merely peter out. Key events are simply left out of the story, leaving us to wonder what happened. The movie breaks up essentially into three sections which have little to do with each other.

The problem is, the movie lacks a tight, coherent plot, and is more a sequence of somewhat related events. It's sloppy and all over the map. And it's easy to see why: Renoir's inspiration for the film was a collection of war stories recollected to him by an officer he met after the war. And that's exactly how the movie comes off, as a hodge-podge of ideas and stories thrown together, without enough effort made to sculpt the thing into a cohesive whole. Heck, Renoir didn't even know how to end it or what to name it until the very end, underscoring the fact that even *he* wasn't quite sure what he was making. What ended up on the screen is apparently vastly different than the first draft of the screenplay, which didn't even have some of the key characters, and was supposed to be about the various escape exploits of the protagonist. By the time we're done, we get only one actual escape for our hero, plus minor participation in a stillborn attempt.

So you can wax on all you want about the great care and detail that went into every scene and camera shot, about the messages and the themes, about the acting, the sets, whatever you want. And I agree that, in looking at the details, at looking at the movie in a reductionistic way, it's a beautiful work of art. But a movie is about more than its parts. It's also about how those parts fit together to make a whole. And looked at holistically, I'm sorry, La Grande Illusion is a disappointment. The story rambles and just does not hold together.

And I'm still *bugged* that we have no idea why Our Hero ends up in solitary confinement.
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Hasn't aged well.
eddie0520102 February 2015
Warning: Spoilers
There are certain films that, due to their strong reputation and historical significance, are supposedly beyond criticism. Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, 2001, The Godfather and many more are examples of films that despite not being necessarily perfect, many say that they are beyond criticism, and that if you do criticism them, you must discuss what masterpieces they are first. One of those films is Grand Illusion. Considered to be one of the first prison escape movies ever made, the film is meant to be one of the best ever made, for not only being the grand-daddy of prison escape films, but for having great characters, an engaging story and a strong anti-war message laying underneath its skin. However, while it does have many positive attributes, Grand Illusion isn't the masterpiece everyone believes it to be, due to poor narrative and being very overlong.

The plot is that after being shot down during an aerial battle, a group of French soldiers are sent to a German prison. Here, they decide to escape, and use many cunning plans in order to do so. That's really all of the story there is here, and while its simple nature makes it seem impossible to screw up, the story is poorly told here. This is due to how there isn't much of a story throughout much of the film, and many scenes consist of characters talking about things not story related or utterly pointless scenes as well (i.e. a scene where the prisoners display a show to the Germans) that should have hit the cutting room floor. Because of this, the film feels very baggy and overlong as a result.

It also doesn't help that the character development is quite inconsistent. While I understand that the film is essentially an ensemble piece, there are too many characters for the film to juggle, leading to few characters we care about or are interested in, and many we couldn't care less about. It also doesn't help that there isn't much threat from the villain characters, as they act very friendly towards the heroes and in a later scene when a protagonist dies, the villain tends to his need. Sure, the scene that this leads to is a wonderful moment (something the film sadly has too little of) and it does represent director Jean Renoir's pacifist views but it fails to create any tension or conflict within the story, and if the audience doesn't care about the events on screen, then what's the point of watching?

The film isn't a complete disaster though. The film is clearly well made , some of the characters are at least interesting and the cast are excellent, with Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio & Erich von Stroheim in particular giving standout performances. It is also at least an entertaining experience for the most part, and it is also an interesting watch, as it is compelling to see one of the first prison escape films and to see how it influenced later prison escape films as a whole.

It is because of this that while Grand Illusion isn't a complete failure, it is very flawed and it hasn't aged very well, due to its overlong length, barrage of pointless material and lacking any tension or suspense for the most part. However, there are some great moments here and there and the acting is fantastic overall. So in conclusion, what you have is a mediocre film that despite its iconic status is quite problematic. However, it is worth checking out to see one of the forerunners of the prison escape genre, and is occasionally brilliant here and there. If you must get it, get the Criterion version above all others, as it goes into great detail about the film, it's history, cast biographies and Nazi ban. To be honest, the edition gives the film a better treatment than it perhaps deserves.
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Class consciousness
jotix10017 April 2005
Jean Renoir was a man behind this masterpiece of the French cinema. It stands as an anti-war document by itself. The incredible DVD version looks as great today, perhaps, as when the original film was released. The screen play by M. Renoir and Charles Spaak was the original model, which many other films that came later, copied and profited from.

"La Grande Illusion" presents us a group of men that come together because of the war. If there were no war, none of these men would have met, let alone, would ever have crossed paths in real life. The top brass in the European armies were headed by the aristocracy. These rich classes only intermingled with their peers; they only gave orders to their subordinates. WWII changed all that!

M. Renoir gets excellent acting from the three principals. Jean Gabin, as Lt. Marechal, shows why he was one of France's best actors. Pierre Fresnay, the aristocratic French Capt. Boeldieu, and Erich Von Stroheim, as Capt. Von Rauffenstein, his German counterpart, are amazing in the film.

Together with "The Rules of the Game", this film will always be one of the most cherished French films of all time.
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There is a grand Illusion indeed with this once-banned film. Everybody thinks it's the best film ever. It's a good film, but kinda overrated
ironhorse_iv4 October 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Don't get me wrong, I love this film, but I don't see it being one of the greatest films of all time. It was pretty hard to watch and get through. It's not the fact that it was made in 1937 by French director Jean Renoir for a French speaking audience, and I can't relate to the film due to its aged and language. It's the fact that the film's themes put me in odds and the editing was just horrible. It's not the director or the editor at the time fault. It was World War 2's fault. For many years, the original nitrate film negative was thought to have been lost in an Allied air raid in 1942. Then, it was revealed that the original negative had been shipped to Berlin during the Nazis control of France due to the ban of the film during WWII. Then in Cold War, Berlin in 1945, the film was controlled by the Soviet's zone and consequently shipped along with many other films to Moscow. The negative was returned to France in the 1960s, but sat unidentified in storage for years. In the early 1990's, it was found, restored, and re-released in the United States in 1999. Overall, watching the badly damage film getting restored was a blessing, but it didn't make the film any better. Probably in pre-World War 2, the film was pretty amazing, but after World War 2, this film feels like a long lost puzzle just put together, with a few of the original pieces missing. It just doesn't have that same grandeur. La Grande Illusion is about a small group of French officers who are captured during World War I and are plotting an escape from a German prison camp. The title of the film comes from the book, The Great Illusion by British economist Norman Angell, which argued that war was futile and pointless. One thing, I do love about this movie is that there is no all-good and all-bad type characters in this film. The Germans were portrayed in a mostly positive light, and not like negative evil madmen like other war films do. Elsa (Dita Parlo) had a very powerful scene about talking about how big the table is, now. It really hit you, when you see how the toll of the war has cause this woman, so much pain. Erich von Stroheim as Captain von Raufeenstein, the warden of the prison had great acting. You can tell through his acting that the character felt pain, not only because of what happen to his body, but also to what is happening in the world. The French characters like aristocratic Captain De Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), working-class Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Wealthy Jew, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) were all great in their roles. The film was generously humanistic to its character of various nationalities. Still, the movie has this odd tell rather than show moments. There is a scene in the beginning, where De Boeldieu and Marechal are going to do an air reconnaissance before captured, and a minute later, they are sitting down with Captain von Rauffenstein for dinner, captured. Where is the scene where they get shot down? They talk about it, but we, the audience don't see it. It was a bad jump cut. Even in the meal scene, the music cuts off pretty oddly to show people do die in this war, as symbolism by the funeral wreath, but still it's awkwardly cut. There are hundreds of badly made cuts in this film. Then, there was a vaudeville-type performance that was pretty weird, that remind me of 1963's Great Escape and 1953's Stalag 17 type humor. I do like the 'LA Marseillaise' scene that remind me of 1942's Casablanca. Still, most of the film felt like watching Hogan Heroes, then a real life movie about prison camps. The different between Great Escape, Stalag 17 and this movie is that this movie fails to make the prisoner-of-war camp look a place, you want to escape. Yes, the guards here were kinda mean, but in no ways, brutal like other two films. The prisoners were living in a castle, no less, better off, then the soldiers living in the trenches at the time. The film loves to say that there is a language barrier between the characters, but throughout the film, the characters understood each other more than I did, watching. The movies go quickly with the French, German, Russian and English dialogue, it does get confusing. The English seem out of place. There is a scene where Boeldieu and Von Rauffenstein spoke English for some odd reason. When did this English speaking came from in the film? I don't know how Maréchal is unable to pass word of the tunnel to an incoming British prisoner, when Boeldieu speak English. Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, are aristocrats represented as cosmopolitan men, educated in many cultures and conversant in several languages. In true life actor Erich von Stroheim didn't speak a word of German. The film would be easier for the audience to understand if they stick with just French. Indeed, watch the film with sub-titles. You need them. I do like the message that critique the romantic idealization of duty, by showing how the aristocrat old order of European civilization has died in this war. I love the symbolism of the flower in the prison. I do like how the movie fights against the anti-Jewish campaign enacted by Adolf Hitler's government at the time, by making Rosenthal looks like a good man. Overall, this film does one thing right, it shows a realistic interpretation of the relationships of soldiers fighting a politician's war. That is why it's one of the great movies of all time.
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No doubt, one of the best films from the 1930's
ReVision8823 September 2019
This being my first Renoir films, one of the first things that I noticed, was that La Grande Illusion doesn't look or feel like a film released in 1937. If I didn't know any better I would have said this was a late 40's or early 50's film. The acting and dialog feel very loose and real, very unlike anything i've seen from the 1930's.

The story overall is pretty good, and it develops at a nice steady pace. La Grande Illusion never feels tiring or too long. Overall i would say it's length is spot on.

The cinematography and different camera shots are great and one of the best I've seen from this era. Really surprised my to be honest. As mentioned the dialog is great, and this works in part thanks to the amazing cast. All the different characters are well written and convincing, not to mention very likable. Also i love that correct languages are used for French, German and English characters, something that even today is not standard practice.

At the end of it all, I really enjoyed this film. Looking forward to more from Renoir
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"On one side, children play at soldiers, on the other, soldiers play like children."
classicsoncall26 April 2018
Warning: Spoilers
After viewing the film, I'm in a quandary as to why it has earned the reputation it has. About the only historical element that came across as accurate to me was the preference shown to officer prisoners of war, who were segregated from the general population of combat soldiers captured in battle. Beyond that, the story seemed almost farcical, what with the German Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) expressing cordiality to the French captain and pilot he shot down. A later scene when he begs Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) to halt in his escape attempt was even more ludicrous. If these examples were meant to convey some intended message about humanity in the midst of war it was totally lost on me. And the idea of prisoner soldiers dressing in drag to put on an entertainment show defied any kind of rationale I could come up with. Not to mention another question I had - where exactly would the prisoners have gotten all those flutes to irritate their German captors, or the pots and pans they came up with as an encore?

I don't know, I must be missing something, and even the more enlightened positive reviews for the film fail to convince me that there's something of significance to be found here. Perhaps in time I'll give it another try, but for now I can only shake my head in wonder. For me, the term Grand Illusion carries an entirely different connotation now as it relates to the movie.
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Forerunner of Escape Movies and Social Satire
jazzest20 January 2004
The Grand Illusion, a forerunner of escape movies as well as a social satire where the three French prisoners represent each own class, consists of roughly three parts which are slow and incoherent with each other. The desire for escape is not compelling while the prison room is huge and luxuriously furnished. The intense screen presence of Austrian director/actor Erich von Stroheim as an evil German soldier may be the best part of the film.
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