Grand Illusion (1937) Directed by Jean Renoir. Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio, Dita Parlo (111 min).

Grand Illusion is a pacifist elegy masked as a prison break thriller, a meditation on the meaninglessness of chivalry and the futility of war. The Nazis tried to destroy every print, and this recent restoration revives one of cinema history’s great experiences. “This is a movie that melts in your mouth–the fluency, visual modesty and heartbreaking grace with which it tells its rueful WWI-POW story is as good as the medium gets.” –Michael Atkinson, Village Voice.

Jean Renoir was the middle of three sons born to Impressionist artist Auguste Renoir, and as a curly headed lad was the subject of many of his father’s paintings. He grew up in a lively atmosphere amongst family and friends who valued beauty and creativity. Renoir discovered a passion for the movies during his long recovery from several WWI injuries. His first love was Charlot, Charlie Chaplin’s nickname in France. “I saw every film of his that was shown in Paris again and again, and my love of him did not grow any less. I began to be interested in other films and became a fanatical cinema fan. Charlie Chapin had converted me. I reached the point of seeing three feature films a day, two in the afternoon, and one in the evening. The cinema was beckoning to me.” (Renoir). He inherited money from his father and was able to set up his own film production company.

“I began to note differences of style in the films made by different directors. It was a new stage in my development. I followed the work of Griffith with intense interest. The marvel of marvels was the close up. I have never changed my opinion about this. Certain close-ups of Lillian Gish, of Mary Pickford, and of Greta Garbo are imprinted on my memory for life. The enlargement enables us to delight in the texture of the skin, and a slight quivering of the lip tells us something about the inward life of the idealized woman. I am ready to bear with the most tedious film if it gives me a close up of an actress I like. And in my passion for the close up I have sometimes inserted perfectly irrelevant sequences in my films simply because they allowed me scope for a really good one.” (Renoir).

In the 1930s he made a number of superb movies, at least two of which, La Regle du Jeu (Rules of the Game) and Grande Illusion recur time and again on lists of the greatest films of all time. The encroaching shadows of World War II caused an outbreak of fatalism in French cinema, as all European artists began to dream of escape. Renoir’s superb films of the 1930s gave him the reputation of being the most “French” of all Pre-war filmmakers (whatever that means) fusing the prevailing style of “poetic realism” with a strong feeling for the class divisions and inequities present in Europe. Both Grand Illusion and La Regle du Jeu were not appreciated at the time. The latter film’s complex plotting and refusal of both films to provide conventionally good and bad characters provoked criticism and their disastrous reception in France helped pave Renoir’s path to a brief and unsatisfying Hollywood career during the WWII Occupation of France.

Renoir’s inspiration for Grand Illusion originated when he shared his war stories with famed pilot Armand Pinsard, who was captured by, and then escaped from the Germans several times. Few of these incidents made it into Renoir and Charles Spaak’s screenplay, but actor Jean Gabin was intrigued, and saw in Lt. Marechal a perfect role for himself. There were few films about the Great War being made in the 1930s, although the silent era produced Wings and The Big Parade, and the early sound era All Quiet on the Western Front, Dawn Patrol and Hell’s Angels. The pacifist mood was fading in Europe, and Renoir’s idea found few enthusiasts.

Renoir said of his WW I comrades, “If one is to put a label on them, I would say that the fighting troops in the First World War were complete anarchists. They didn’t give a damn for anything, least of all for noble sentiments. The destruction of cathedrals left them cold, and they did not believe that they were fighting a war for liberty. They cared nothing for death, either, thinking that their present life was not worth living. They had touched the lees of existence. What is strange is that, despite this complete skepticism, they fought magnificently. They were caught in the machinery and had no way of getting out.” (Renoir).

Another inspiration for the film was the discovery that a close friend, Carl Koch, had been a German Captain of Artillery in the sector where Renoir had been a pilot. Comparing stories, they concluded they had been trying to kill one another during the war. “Koch and I concluded that this was his battery: so we had made war together. These things form a bond. The fact that we had been on opposite sides was the merest detail. Indeed, as I come to think of it, it was even better—a further instance of my theory of the division of the world by horizontal frontiers, and not into compartments enclosed in vertical frontiers.” (Renoir).

For three years, no producers were convinced this was a good subject for a film. Was it not for Jean Gabin’s confidence, and his commitment to the script, it might never have been made. In the 1930s, Gabin was France’s most magnetic movie star, perhaps the country’s greatest, ever. He fused a potent blend of working class glamour, sensuality and doomed romanticism in a series of 1930s films that retain their classic status. He was born into a theatrical family, and began his career as a comic singer in music halls. By the mid 1930s, his rough features, Parisian accent and minimalist acting style were hailed as “a combination of everyday French working-class masculinity with the fatal destiny of a tragic hero.” (Ginette Vinvendeau in the Oxford History of World Cinema). Like so many others, he fled Occupied France and ended up in Hollywood (in part because of his romance with Marlene Dietrich) but eventually left films to join the Free French Forces, for which he was decorated. After the war, his world weary characters, like Max in Toucher Pas au Grisbi became a post war touchstone, and his career flourished once more as he played older men.

Grand Illusion used a combination of realism and stylization, as was common in the poetic realist style. As much as he loved the close up, Renoir also felt drawn to long shots where the actors could really get the feel for their characters. He compromised these two goals by filming the actors relatively closely, and then getting the cameraman, in this case his nephew Claude Renoir, to track their movements, which takes immense skill. “He was supple as an eel,” Renoir wrote admiringly, “and shrank from no acrobatics.” Jean Gabin wore Renoir’s old pilot’s tunic, saved from the war. Von Stroheim’s uniform, too, is authentic, but worn with inauthentic flamboyance. Faced with two such powerful stars, it was important than one not overwhelm the other.

Pierre Fresnay plays Capt. de Boeldieu, his most famous role, although he also starred as Marius in Marcel Pagnol’s Fanny trilogy. Dita Parlo, Jean Vigo’s leading actress in L’Atalante, plays the widow with whom Lt. Marechal has a brief interlude. Dita Parlo is an obsession of the pop singer, Madonna, who has used her name and image in some of her work, and has also inspired the post-modern burlesque artist Dita von Teese, who adopted her first name.

Marcel Dalio plays the Jewish soldier, Rosenthal. A Roumaninan Jewish actor, he had played only one other major part before this one, also with Jean Gabin, in Pepe le Moko. Renoir gave him the best two roles of his career, here, and as the Marquis in La Règle du Jeu. Dalio soon escaped Nazi anti-Semitism for Hollywood where he had a long career as a character actor, notably as the manager of Rick’s casino in Casablanca. Rosenthal’s Jewishness was an important theme of the film; perhaps Renoir intended to antagonize French anti-Semites by providing such a sympathetic Jewish character. The Nazis were also outraged, although they were also offended that the German officer Captain von Rauffenstein, was played by Erich von Stroheim, a Jewish actor (albeit one who gloried in Teutonic stereotypes). In 1951, at a UCLA screening at which Renoir was present, he was outraged when the subtitles translated by Herman G. Weinberg, rendered “Au Revoir, sale juif” as “Goodbye, old pal” and not “dirty Jew” significantly altering a theme of the film. Rialto Pictures’ restored print has new titles by Lenny Borger.

Jean Gabin at left, Pierre Fresney next to him.

The script had to be rewritten when Erich von Stroheim, the legendary silent era actor and director, was hired to play the prison commandant, fusing two small characters into a more significant one. Renoir was awed to be directing one of his idols. He saw Stroheim’s Foolish Wives when it was released in 1923, 34 times, he said; he knew every frame of the film which convinced him to become a film director. Renoir was crushed when an argument over what von Stroheim considered authentic detail and Renoir thought a cliché in one scene led to an argument. Renoir dissolved in tears, and von Stroheim, obviously moved when Renoir declared he would give up directing the film at all rather than quarrel with him, became entirely docile. Renoir allowed him to embroider his character, accepting or rejecting a plethora of ideas. One he greatly liked was the suggestion that his injured ex-pilot wear a neck brace because of his war injury, because it eliminated the need for expository dialogue. Von Stroheim was proud of the fact that it was he who persuaded a medical appliance shop to sell him the brace without a doctor’s prescription. This was one of von Stroheim’s greatest acting roles, a mature version of his officer heroes from his own films of the 1920s. Von Rauffenstein befriends Capt. de Boeldieu, with whom he shares a nostalgia for the aristocratic life the war would extinguish, and they forge a tender bond transcending nationality.Von Stroheim reminisced, “This was the first time that a director in whose film I had played accepted wholeheartedly all the suggestions which I humbly offered. I have never found a more sympathetic, understanding and artistic director and friend than Jean Renoir” (Bergan).

Since the film couldn’t be shot in Germany, the exteriors were filmed in Alsace, at the Haut Koenigsberg Castle and the barracks at Colmar, built by Wilhelm II and Neuf-Brisach on the Upper Rhine. The exteriors lend great authenticity to the story.

There is no combat in this war movie. The dramatic scenes are those of the personal relationships that reaffirm that artificially created national borders are an illusion that leads to individual destruction. Now considered to be a definitive anti-war film, it has also been accused of crass patriotism. After WW II, the sympathetic portrayal of the Germans was deplored. Renoir’s greatest international success “has been eulogized and damned at different moments in its career and no one has ever really agreed what the great illusion in the title refers to, although everyone has their own preferred version. The film is profoundly ambiguous.” (O’Shaughnessy).

The Nazis didn’t feel that way. It was banned in Belgium (ironically, the Foreign Affairs Minister who did so was co-writer’s Charles Spaak’s brother), in Italy by Mussolini, and by Goebbels, who called it “public cinematographic enemy number one.” Goebbels was in the audience at the Venice Film Festival in 1937 when it was shown, and remarked “Von Stroheim’s impersonation of a German officer is a caricature. There are no German officers like that.” A French journalist replied, “Too bad for them!” (Curtiss). In the US, it won Best Foreign Film from the National Board of Review, and President Roosevelt said, “Every democratic person should see this film.” (Bertin).

When the Nazis invaded Paris they seized the original camera negative, which was shipped to Berlin, and they destroyed as many prints of the film as they could locate. The Russians recovered this negative after the war, and kept it for many years, but at some point returned it to France. The new Rialto print is struck from this original camera negative.

Grand Illusion is an accepted classic of world cinema that has retained all its warmth, irony–and its power. Hollywood, in particular, but international film in general, has lost the ability of making a serious, thoughtful film that is not overwhelmingly depressing, or soaked in blood. As the characters ruefully acknowlege there will be wars following the War to End All Wars, audience members can’t help but reflect on the ongoing slaughter over national borders.


(Photos from Tyler, Curtiss. Sources include: My Life and My Films by Jean Renoir, Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise by Ronald Bergan, Jean Renoir by Martin O’Shaughnessy, Jean Renoir: A Life in Pictures by Célia Bertin, French New Wave by Jean Douchet, French Cinema From Its Beginnings to the Present by Rémi Fournier Lanzoni, Videohounds’ World Cinema, edited by Elliot Wilheim, Stroheim by Joel W. Finler, Von Stroheim by Thomas Quinn Curtiss and Classics of the Foreign Film by Parker Tyler, “A Monumental Film Suddenly Appears Brighter” by Peter M. NIchols, New York Times.