Jean Renoir’s 1938 classic about prisoners in World War One was a plea for peace on the eve of yet another war.
Here’s an Oscar trivia question. What was the first non-English language film to be nominated for Best Picture? The answer is Grand Illusion, a French film, in 1938. It was the first, and there wasn’t another for the next 31 years. Americans didn’t pay much attention to foreign language films then. But this one got through, with great acclaim, although of course it didn’t win the Oscar.
Jean Renoir, son of the eminent impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, emerged in the 1930s as one of France’s most important filmmakers. He liked to use long takes and a moving camera. He said, “Everyone has their reasons,” and thus he never did hero-villain movies, instead perfecting a kind of empathetic realism.
This movie is set during the First World War, the Great War as it was known at the time. An aristocratic French pilot, Captain de Boëldieu, played by Pierre Fresnais, and his working class lieutenant Maréchal, played by Jean Gabin, are shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans. Boëldieu meets the pilot who shot him down, von Rauffenstein, played by American actor and revered silent film director Erich von Stroheim. They discover that they have mutual friends and interests. This is the beginning of a central theme: the wide barriers between classes in both countries, illustrated by how two upper class officers on opposite sides can relate better to one another than to their own men.
Boëldieu and Maréchal are then taken to a POW camp where they meet a lot of spirited French prisoners, including the kind and generous Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish man from a wealthy family who shares his food bundles with everyone. Here Renoir, and his co-screenwriter Charles Spaak, present another challenge—Jews were generally not well accepted in Gentile society then.
At one point, the prisoners put on a variety show that is a highlight of the film. It includes dancing in drag while lip-synching to a recording of an operetta. Suddenly Maréchal bursts on stage announcing a recent French victoryin battle, and all the POWs stand up and sing the national anthem, La Marseillaise, defiantly to the German soldiers. A few years later, Hollywood took this idea and adapted it for a similar effect in the film Casablanca.
Eventually some of the troublesome French POWs are transferred to a mountain fortress that happens to be run by Rauffenstein, who was wounded and reassigned to this post. He renews his friendship with Captain de Boëldieu, and in their conversations we discover a difference in attitude. Rauffenstein wants the old world of privilege preserved. Boëldieu, however, has accepted society’s changes and wants to be of service to the common people. The “grand illusion” of the title is this old pre-war reality, when everyone stayed in their place in service to nobility. World War I destroyed that forever, and Renoir’s film is both an elegy for the past and a hopeful vision of the future.
There’s quite a bit more to the story. The French plan a daring escape, and Grand Illusion is, in fact, the first POW escape film. But the movie is not primarily action—it’s a film of deep emotion and growing insight, with Jean Gabin, France’s biggest movie star, embodying the spirit of a new, more democratic world. Alas, the second World War dashed this spirit for awhile. Renoir had to flee to America, while the Germans banned his movie and tried to destroy all the prints. They failed. Grand Illusion remains one of the greatest antiwar statements ever filmed.