The first World War and several French officers, among them Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin), Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), and Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), have been captured by German forces and escorted to a prison camp where they quickly go about the business of planning an escape.
The obvious choice, seeing as how the Germans have provided rudimentary gardening tools, is to tunnel for freedom, but the day before the tunnel is completed, the prisoners are rotated and our three heroes moved to their new home–an old Bavarian fortress, high and impregnable.
It is here that Boeldieu is reunited with Capt. von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), a pre-war acquaintance who laments that a man with such high breeding as Boeldieu should be subjected to such conditions. Rauffenstein is a kind warden but, as Boeldieu says “prisons are made for escaping,” so they set about planning their early release.
Even if Jean Renoir’s La Grande illusion is not the first anti-war film ever made, it is certainly one of the best for the simple fact that it assumes we understand how awful war is. There is no gruesome battle footage, no stirring calls for peace, and no indication that anyone in the film thinks the war to be a remotely good idea.
But both sides accept it as something they must endure, much in the same way we view traffic jams–as a nuisance beyond anyone’s control. When they talk of reaching neutral Switzerland there are no dreams of hiding in a small village until the fighting ends. They speak almost reluctantly of rejoining the fight, not because of any intrinsic desire to shed blood or an overt sense of nationalism, but simply because they haven’t allowed themselves to consider an alternative. To stop fighting because they’ve escaped is to them as rational as quitting a job to avoid rush hour. Sure, it’s possible and may even be an idea with merit, but it isn’t at all practical.
Likewise, they could wait out the war in the German camps where they are permitted gardens, entertainment, and virtually unfettered access to parcels full of food and wine. As far as wartime lifestyles go, it is a pretty good one, and there isn’t any shame in being a prisoner of war (in fact, it probably comes with a great deal of respect once the war is over), yet their singular focus is to escape.
But why? Because it is sworn duty to fight, and nothing surpasses a man’s sworn duty. Or, as James Donald put it in The Great Escape (1963), “it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they can’t, it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.”
That being said, what makes La Grande illusion remarkable isn’t the officer’s sense of duty, but rather Renoir’s exploration of humanity in the midst of war. A major theme of the film’s first half revolves around war’s ability to realign traditional class structures. That is, it levels the field, for there are no aristocrats or peasants in foxholes, only soldiers. Still, there’s a natural tendency to cling to those old labels, even in a concentration camp.
Rauffenstein, recognizing in Boeldieu a fellow member of high society and wishing to not be viewed as a “German barbarian”, affords Boeldieu certain liberties not available to the likes of Maréchal and Rosenthal. He invites Boeldieu to join him for dinner and is willing to trust his honesty, rather than employing the usual methods of searching a prisoner’s quarters.
They form a sort of friendship based on a mutual civility, enemies finding a small corner of kindness in the brutality of war. But this being war, Boeldieu is forced to use this kindness as an opportunity to facilitate an escape for his countrymen and fellow officers. It is a selfless act that is both daring and grand. Once again, duty reigning supreme.
In the end, you realize that on so many levels La Grande illusion isn’t about war at all, but instead is about humanity’s ability to connect with each other despite their numerous differences, that two people in a room, stripped of their titles and their nationalities and their wealth and everything else, are simply two people in a room and they must learn to see each other for who they are, not what they are. It matters little if you’re French or German or British or American because all that is superficial and man-made, just like the lines on the map that determine where you are.
Are Maréchal and Rosenthal any more free recovering in a German farmhouse then they would be in Switzerland, or are they just on the wrong side of an imaginary line? Perhaps it’s fitting that in World War II, when the Germans invaded France, Goebbels had the film confiscated in an attempt to destroy it, but Frank Hansel, a Nazi officer, managed to smuggle it to Berlin and preserve it for future generations. A brave and selfless move by Hansel, to be sure, a case where life imitates art and a German saves the legacy of a Frenchman, even though they are on different sides of an imaginary line.
 Of course, you could argue that aristocrats don’t end up in foxholes nearly as often as peasants, but that’s an altogether different issue.
Starring: Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim, Pierre Fresnay, and Dita Parlo
Written by: Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak
Directed by: Jean Renoir
NR, 114 min, 1937, France