The Grand Illusion / La grande illusion

  • Director: Jean Renior
  • Released: 1937
  • Writers: Charles Spaak, Jean Renoir
  • Featured 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.”


  • 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


  • 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