La Grande Illusion

Jean Renoir, France 1937, 94 minutes

In 1916, two French aviators, Captain Boeldieu (an officer) and Lieutenant Marechal (a mechanic), are captured by the Germans after their aircraft has been shot down. They are taken to a prisoner-of-war camp where they share the fate of French, English and Russian soldiers of many different social backgrounds. To find a way to escape becomes their sole obsession. After a succession of narrowly failed attempts, the main characters of this episode of the Great War are transferred to a gloomy fortress from which escape is theoretically impossible. The commander of the fortress is a German officer of the aristocracy. Although he does his job thoroughly, he dislikes it, and has a critical view of the war. He fraternizes with the French officer whose tastes he shares...

La Grande Illusion is Jean Renoir's masterpiece, and is certainly his most famous and most popular film. Ever since its release, despite being banned in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, it has enjoyed a considerable success and was hailed as one of the world's best films. Its strengths lie in an effective and harmonious blend of comical, satirical, dramatical and sentimental scenes, a solid performance delivered by a fantastic cast including Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay and Eric von Stroheim, and in the deeply human issues it focuses on. La Grande Illusion is more of a social study than anything else. In it, Renoir shows that people are less separated by their nationality - for which wars are fought - than by their social classes. Thus does Boeldieu find that he has more in common with his German captor than with his compatriot.

Renoir has been criticised for being over-optimistic by portraying only the good characters in his film. True, for all their different personalities, they are all a paragon of duty, honour and generosity, a little too perfect perhaps. However, the title he chose suggests otherwise and has a prophetic quality considering the film was released just two years before the start of World War II.

"One of the undeniably great films in the history of world cinema, Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion is an eloquent commentary on the borders that divide people, classes, armies and countries." - Virgin

Review by Katia Saint-Peron
Taken from EUFS Programme 1996-97