The Grand Illusion / La grande illusion

Director: Jean Renior
Released: 1937
Writers: Charles Spaak, Jean RenoirFeatured Actors: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim

 

Historical & Cultural Context

  • Released in 1938
  • Banned in Italy by Mussolini & in Germany by Goebbels
  • Renoir wanted to make a statement about peace
  • Film lost until 1946 (Nazis seized the print) when American Soldiers recovered it in a truncated form
    • Renoir reconstructed it — was re-released in 1958
  • The story is based on a WW1 French fighter Pilot that Renoir met who was shot down 7 times and escaped the prison camp each time
  • Renoir, himself, flew old school wooden planes in the War
  • The film gazes back to a different era, and to a war, in the words of the director, “based on fair play, a war without atom bombs or torture.” Hitler had not appeared. “Nor,” says Renoir, “had the Nazis, who almost succeeded in making people forget that the Germans are also human beings.”

Biography

  • Son of Impressionist Painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir
  • Childhood (and adult) companion of Paul Cézanne Jr

Characterizations and Human Relations

  • A war of formal & educated gentlemen
  • People are caught in a tragedy (in the West) and only the furtherance and deepening of human relationships can prevent total destruction
  • The film constantly reminds the viewer that Germans are humans too
  • The brutality of the trenches is left out of the presentation (a decision which Renoir received criticism for) – instead he focuses the story on the prison camp
    • The story itself is quite conventional – prison camp – prison breaks, talent shows, packages from home, etc
    • Renoir’s treatment of these conventions creates the strength and timelessness of the film
  • Often the German guards are sympathetic to the prisoners – human decency prevails
    • Especially poignant is the German guard whose compassion toward Mareshal is shown through the gift of the harmonica and his excitement when Mareshal plays it and symbolically re-connects to the human realm

Cinematography

  • Often group shots are composed (sans cuts) to emphasize camaraderie and decency
  • Meals unite people
  • Economy of expression
    • Note tracking shots throughout
    • Use of Montage to conclude the first half & introduce the second half