La Grande illusion (Grand Illusion) Reviews
A milestone film that no doubt influenced later offerings like Stalag 17 (1953), The Great Escape (1963) and Hart's War (2002).
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.
Notice also the tune the prisoners play during the escape - the actual song (although we do not hear the lyrics, it is a famous song) of that song are brutal and very relevant to the pessimism of the film. The somewhat obscure title also betrays that, if we take it that the words of the protagonists at the end of the film are the key to interpreting it: the great illusion is that the war will quickly end. Renoir who took part on the great war himself was surely aware about the attitude of people to the war at the beginning of it. They all were cheerful and sure that the world would end in the first months after its beginning (Stephan Zweig gives a nice description of European psychology at the time in his The World of Yesterday). The film ridicules this attitude as well as the manners and chivalry during the war (see Rauffenstein inviting his new prisoners to dinner). But the statement of the film, that the illusion is that the war will end, transcends the WWI context and becomes, unintentionally maybe, a description of human nature in general - a nature which can take so many different forms (Russians, Germans, French, English) and yet is so much the same; a nature which has war in its very nature. The last long shot with the two escapees walking in the snow, crossing the borders, while we know that they are going back to their army to continue the fight couldn't be a more pessimistic end then.
My expectations were quite lofty so the experience was something of a letdown. Nevertheless, Grand Illusion influenced such great films as Stalag-17 and Casablanca with a not-quite-as-stirring rendition of 'La Marsellaise' that enrages German officers. The messages of similarity beyond borders & politics and the hypocrisies of war still ring true. This is as languidly paced a war film as you're likely to see, especially following the final escape attempt. I appreciate the historical importance of Grand Illusion but prefer the greater complexity and urgency of several of its followers.