"Grand Illusion" is yet another film that was up for Best Picture in 1938, the only foreign-language film so honored. It's quite ironic that at the very time Nazi Germany was plotting to crush France and annihilate Jews, Communists, and homosexuals, the French filmmaker Jean Renoir was creating an anti-war film that humanized Germans.
Set in World War I, "Grand Illusion" presents French and German soldiers as sharing a common humanity. The Germans who run a prisoner-of-war camp are humane, balanced and thoughtful. They think highly of their French prisoners and rub shoulders with them frequently. The head of the camp (played by Erich von Stroheim) is an aristocrat who cares more about music and literature than warfare. The idea that French and German people are different is presented as a ridiculous illusion.
The film ends well, but there are so many dull passages to endure before you get there. The direction is also terribly pedestrian. Renoir never does a single interesting thing with the camera. The script moves along too slowly, and the artless direction only makes it worse. I like what the film has to say, but I'm not very impressed with how it says it. In addition to more flavorful direction and snappier editing, the film needed more story development. There is simply not enough drama or characterization.
Only in the last 30 minutes did I really start to care, when there's a fabulous sequence between two escaped prisoners and an angelic German widow they befriend on their march to the Swiss border. This final sequence had a spiritual and emotional quality that the first three-quarters of the film lacked.