Film Score: Joseph Kosma Cinematography: Christian Matras
Starring: Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio and Erich von Stroheim
The Grand Illusion (La grande illusion) was thought to be lost in its original form, taken back to Germany by the Nazis and leaving the world with only butchered copies that were unable to convey the magic that the great director had originally captured on film. Fortunately the original negative was discovered in Munich in the late fifties and the film is now considered one of the greatest in cinematic history. Because the film is set during World War One, there is a natural impetus to compare it to All Quiet on the Western Front. But they are very different films and ultimately have very different messages. The story by Erich Maria Remarque is one of disillusionment, and while there is certainly some of that in Renoir’s film there is far more emphasis on relationships in all forms, whether they be between races, citizens of one country, or citizens of the world. In the earlier film the illusion is that of the glory of war. In the French film it is the illusion of separation between people. At the end of the film Marcel Dalio says to Jean Gabin that borders are all man-made. The implication is clear, so are all of humanity’s attempts to separate people and make them enemies. The only problem is we act on that illusion because we believe it is real.
The film begins with pilot Jean Gabin listening to a phonograph in a bar and planning on meeting his girlfriend later. But he’s told he needs to take an officer, Pierre Fresnay, to the front immediately. Fresnay want to check out some ambiguous images on an aerial recognizance photograph. In the very next scene, German pilot Erich von Stroheim comes in from just having shot down a plane and sends someone to go after the pilot to invite him to lunch. The pilot turns out to be Gabin, with Fresnay in tow. They sit down to eat with the German staff officers and the civility is incredibly comical. Later the two are transferred to a prisoner of war camp for officers, and the comedy continues inside the camp. While the Germans have no compunction about taking valuables from the prisoners, the French officers receive regular packages of food from France while the Germans are forced to eat what they can scrounge. Marcel Dalio gets the best parcels of all because his family is wealthy. Julien Carette was a comedic actor as a civilian, but the snobbish Fresnay doesn’t appreciate his humor. Later, Georges Péclet wants to know from Gabin if they can trust Frenay, because they are digging a tunnel.
One meaning of the title comes from the fact that this is 1914 and the war has barely begun. When Gabin tells Péclet that the war will be over before they get the tunnel finished, Péclet tells him he’s deluding himself. The bigger illusion, however, may be that they’ll ever escape at all. But by the end of the film it’s clear that it is the illusion of aristocracy that is really the subject of the film. As a war film, the story is tremendously influential. The film is the precursor to any number of serio-comic prison-break films, from The Great Escape and Stalag 17 in the 1950s, to Victory thirty years later. The men also insist on putting on a show, complete with costumes and men in drag, which prefigures Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as the singing of “La Marseillaise,” which infuriates the Germans just a it would in Casablanca. For announcing the news that the French had retaken one of their forts and inspiring the French officers to sing the anthem, Gabin finds himself in solitary confinement until it nearly drives him mad. But that’s nothing after he and the other officers find out that they have to move camps before the tunnel is done. As the war drags on they change camps several times. The last camp they are assigned to has, as its commandant, none other than Erich von Stroheim, and the parallels with The Great Escape become even more numerous. It’s a mountain fortress with thick, stone walls that defy escape. And still, they keep trying.
One of the many fascinating aspects of the film for American audiences is the class distinctions that are made throughout the film. Von Stroheim treats Frenay with great deference because of their shared nobility, the same thing that keeps Gabin from entirely trusting Frenay. For von Stroheim’s part, he understands that the old monarchical system will certainly be over when the war ends, but this doesn’t seem to bother Frenay. The production is outstanding, and the restored negative certainly makes it the equal of anything produced in Hollywood at the time. Director Jean Renoir likes to zoom in on his actors on occasion without cutting, and it is one of the few individual touches that can be noticed immediately. Of course the acting is magnificent. Jean Gabin is a force on the screen, natural and magnetic at the same time. Pierre Fresnay, while inspiring disdain, nevertheless acquits himself as a character with a moral center. And it’s always a pleasure to see the great Erich von Stroheim onscreen. Dita Parlo doesn’t appear until near the end of the film, but she is an important part of the story and she does a terrific job as well. The Grand Illusion certainly earns its reputation as one of the great films of all time, an influential and artistic film that is as compelling as it is beautiful to look at.