The critical estimate of La grande illusion has fluctuated with the vicissitudes of critical theory. In the days when film's importance was attributed to the importance of its subject, it was widely regarded as Renoir's masterpiece, a noble humanist antiwar statement. With the development of the auteur theory in the late 1950s, its reputation dwindled. It came to be perceived as a less personal, less intimate and less complex work than La règle du jeu, which superseded it as marking the summit of Renoir's achievement. Though opposed, these views are based on the same misconception. La grande illusion is much too complex to be reduced to a thesis film, and although an antiwar statement can certainly be read from it (Renoir's detestation of war is not in doubt), that is incidental rather than essential to the film's meaning. In fact, it has a great deal in common with La règle du jeu: Renoir's own account of the thematic premise of the later film applies equally to the earlier ("My preoccupation is with the meeting; how to belong, how to meet"); both have similar four-part structures, moving to a big climactic scene at the end of part two, placing the major climax at the end of part three, with a quieter, more intimate fourth part in which the action moves out of doors or into the countryside.
"How to belong, how to meet" – another way of putting it is to say that Renoir's perennial concern is with the boundaries; that keep people apart and the possibility of transcending them. The four-part structure enables him to develop this theme through a network of shifting, interlocking relationships presented consistently in terms of difference and the overcoming of difference.
The first part consists of a prologue that introduces three of the four main characters and two of the main boundaries, class and nationality. Bœildieu and Maréchal are connected because both are French and involved in a war against Germany; Bœildieu and von Rauffenstein are connected because both are aristocrats and share a particular code that excludes the proletariat Maréchal. The film's basic assumption – that "difference" is socially constructed but so thoroughly internalized and so strongly institutionalized as to be very difficult to overcome – is dramatized in the parallels between the two headquarters (French/German) which are identical in structure but different in every detail, the details insisting upon "Frenchness" and "German-ness" respectively.
The second part occurs in the Prison Camp. Another main character, Rosenthal, is introduced, along with a host of minor ones who illustrate diverse aspects of the theme in the particularities of social position, profession, outlook, etc. With Rosenthal a third main boundary is established, that of race and religion. The pattern of alignments/separation becomes more complex: Maréchal/Bœildieu are linked by race and religion (Aryan, Christian) but separated by class position; Bœildieu/Rosenthal are linked by privilege but separated by class tradition (aristocrat/nouveau riche); Rosenthal/Maréchal are linked as non-aristocratic but separated by race/religion and social status. This section of the film makes frequent and expressive use of a favorite Renoir motif, the window, which stresses separation (outside/inside), but is also a boundary that can be crossed or communicated across. The second part culminates in the first big climax, the celebrated scene of the prisoners' camp show and defiant singing of the "Marseillaise." Most important here, however, is the film's raising of the last main issue of boundary, that of gender/sexuality, especially in the extraordinary moment when the young prisoner is seen in women's clothes (for the show) and all activity and conversation abruptly cease. Its intensity exceeds anything explainable in terms of nostalgia for absent women: the androgynous figure becomes the center of the men's fascination and attraction.
The third section reintroduces von Rauffenstein (now with broken vertebrae, in a sense as much a prisoner as the men he is in charge of) and the development and culmination of the Bœildieu/von Rauffenstein alignment/separation. A leading concern here again connects the film to Règle du jeu: the notion that the aristocratic order the two men represent will not survive the war. The aristocracy of Règle du jeu is significantly different; they no longer are informed and guided by a clearly defined code of nobility. Règle du jeu's Marquis is connected, not to Bœildieu, but to Rosenthal (not only are the two characters played by the same actor, but we are told that "Rosenthal" was the name of the Marquis's grandfather). Renoir views this inevitable destruction of a way of life with marked ambivalence. The aristocratic code is seen at once as based upon an untenable privilege and as embodying a fineness without which civilization will be poorer. This part of the film moves to the second major climax, in which Renoir magnificently ties all the major thematic and dramatic threads together: the escape of Maréchal and Rosenthal, secured by Bœildieu who sacrifices his life by compelling von Rauffenstein to shoot him. The scene echoes the climax of the second section by centering on a "theatrical" performance (Bœildieu playing his penny whistle on the battlements, the searchlights trained on him as "star"). Together with the ensuing scene of Bœildieu's death and his class friend/national enemy's grief, the scene enacts the theme of the end of the aristocratic order (the proletarian Maréchal and the nouveau riche Rosenthal are the embryonic future). It achieves the film's supreme irony in its play on the intimate understanding and affection between two men, one of whom must kill the other.
The last section involves the escape/the farm/the border. The relation of La grande illusion to classical narrative (with its traditional pattern of order-disturbance of order-restoration of order) is complex and idiosyncratic. The narrative actually takes place in the hiatus between two orders: the order the war has destroyed and the new order that will be built when it is over. Between the two, Renoir manages at once to suggest the social order that was left behind and the possibility of a different order no longer based on artificial divisions. In the camps, the boundaries of class, race, and nationality are repeatedly crossed and eroded as new alignments (based on human need and sympathy) are formed. The last section restores what was crucially absent earlier: the presence of a woman. A series of three immediately consecutive scenes can be read as "answering" and containing the eruption of possible bisexuality in part two: Maréchal and Rosenthal sleep in each other's arms (the motive is warmth, not sexuality, but nonetheless they are in close bodily proximity); awakening, they quarrel violently, Maréchal calls Rosenthal a "dirty Jew," they separate, then tentatively come together again; hiding in a barn, they hear someone coming and spring to either side of the door; the door opens and, exactly between them, the woman appears. The ensuing scenes restore the heterosexuality that, at the outset, was present only as a song ("Frou-Frou") and a memory (Maréchal's Joséphine, the woman recalled by both Bœildieu and von Rauffenstein). This leads to the ultimate expression of togetherness/division: the Christmas celebration in which Rosenthal assists, only to be excluded as the lovers leave to go to bed. If the film celebrates the possibility of demolishing boundaries, it also acknowledges, within the existing social system, their inevitability.
Essay by Robin Wood
Release Date: 1937
Starring: Erich von Stroheim, Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio, Julien Carette, Gaston Modot, Jean Daste, Georges Peclet, Jacques Becker, Sylvain Itkine, Dita Parlo, Werner Florian, Michel Salina, and Carl Koch
Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Charles Spaak and Jean Renoir
Source Citation: Wood, Robin. "La Grande Illusion." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 480-483.