If European aristocracy ever had a point for being, Jean Renoir’s great film, Grand Illusion, makes an even stronger one.
Elements of the plot are discussed. Two French officers – the aristocrat Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and the working class Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin) are shot down beyond German lines during World War I. The German pilot was Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim, in a vivid performance). Rauffenstein, after learning the two are officers, invites them to lunch. The two aristocrats live by a shared code of behavior and honor. They both see that their way of life is being swept away by the war. They recognize that their class sets them apart. They see each other as enemies, but as equals. Marechal is an officer, too, but no aristocrat. He’s a shrewd man with a will of his own. He knows how to farm. The three meet again months later when de Boeldieu and Marechal are sent to an escape-proof prison camp, now commanded by von Rauffenstein. The German has been so badly wounded he can no longer fight. He sees the purpose of his life taken from him. And now there is Lieutenant Rosenthal, a French officer and a Jew, personable and generous with the food packages his family sends him.
Is there a picture of prison life, of escapes being planned, of a Christmas entertainment put on by the prisoners? Of course. Throughout all of this Renoir builds the relationship between the two aristocratic officers who share a way of life, a code of conduct and honor, which cannot be shared except by others of their class. He also gives us Marechal, practical and a man with no great use for aristocrats.
There is an escape. Marechal and Rosenthal flee the prison thanks to a self-sacrificing act by de Boeldieu, who is brought down almost tearfully by von Rauffenstein.
The behavior and attitudes dictated by aristocratic honor are engrossing. The coda of Grand Illusion, however, is magnificently moving. Marechal and Rosenthal make it, barely, to Switzerland. The movie leaves us seeing the relationship develop between Marechal and Elsa, a German woman whose husband and brothers have been killed in the war, who takes them in and who agrees that the two men can stay the winter and work her farm. Gradually we see a cautious love develop between the Frenchman Marechal and the German woman. When spring comes Marechal and Rosenthal leave. But Marechal promises to return after the war if he survives.
All the above writing is completely inadequate to provide a picture of the emotional depth Renoir gives this movie. Grand Illusion is one of his great films.
The aristocratic way of life, of rigid behavior and superiority, has little purpose and is dying. War is as pointless as dying for one’s superiority. A new and better order may come of all this…of humanity, trust, even love.