Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Review: La Grande Illusion

As a digitally restored version is released, Michael Pooler revisits Jean Renoir's anti-war masterpiece

April 28, 2012
4 min read

See end of review for chance to win La Grande Illusion on DVD

In the canon of war cinema, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion is a rarity: a film with no fighting, where the frontline is never seen. A brilliant work whose only real moment of violence is the shooting of a prancing man armed with nothing but a flute, it depicts the fragility and resilience of human relationships in the absurdity of war.

La Grande Illusion tells the tale of a band of French soldiers captured as prisoners of war by German forces during WWI. At the centre of the drama is a trio of characters who embody the French tricolore; markedly different, they are at once an acknowledgement of the divisions in French society and a hopeful rallying cry of fraternité.

Maréchal is a straight-talking and rough-edged Parisian, loyal and with a common touch. His unlikely companion is de Boeldieu, an aristocratic captain aloof from his comrades who observes social formalities until the end. Finally there is Rosenthal, a banker from a rich Jewish immigrant family, a man whose opulence and generosity never deserts him – even behind enemy lines.

Defiance of the genre’s clichés is the hallmark of Renoir’s masterpiece. In a refreshing departure from the mould of war films, the enemy Boche are not portrayed as universally villainous. Artur, the camp guard, is stern but not cruel; he speaks with sincerity when he wishes the departing prisoners ‘see their wives soon’.

When Maréchal is thrown into solitary confinement, his sole comforter is an elderly German guard, who, after offering the despairing prisoner cigarettes and a harmonica in a gesture of consolation, can only utter ‘this war has gone on too long’. The intention is deeply anti-nationalistic.

In a similar manner, Renoir dispenses with the traditional cinematic conventions of narrative. In place of a single linear plot leading to a climax, the film is devised in three connected episodes. Alongside the themes of loneliness and boredom, this format injects a dose of realism. First, our heroes find themselves in the confines of a largely agreeable POW camp, where in comedic fashion they plan their escape, only to be foiled at the last minute. This is followed by their removal to a higher security facility due to multiple attempts at escape – all of which unseen by the audience – and then finally by Maréchal and Rosenthal’s comic and tortuous route to escape.

With a deft touch, Renoir uses The Great War as a prism through which to view other changes that coursed through Europe’s social fabric during this era of upheaval. Although the cross-section of French society in the POW barracks borders on caricature at times, it is revealing of class tensions and divisions in society which most war films gloss over in favour of a cheap and easy patriotism.

Perhaps the greatest poignancy comes in the rapport struck up between de Boeldieu and German general Rauffenstein. The pair share a common cultural grounding and solidarity through their aristocratic backgrounds, but a painful dissonance emerges due to their captor-prisoner relationship. Here, Renoir laments the dying of a gentlemanly nobility whose illusion of a shared heritage is dashed by the hard pragmatism of modern warfare; a symbol of the wind of political change shaking Old Europe to its roots.

An entertaining and moving work, La Grande Illusion eschews both jingoism and the smug morality of the victor to convey a subtle, yet powerful, anti-war message. In this end this comes not through barbarism, torture or atrocity, but by tearing down the illusory barrier that war creates between adversaries.

A digital restoration of La Grande Illusion was released by StudioCanal on DVD and Blu-ray on 23 April.

Red Pepper has three copies of the DVD  to give away. Simply email office@redpepper.org.uk with “Grand Illusion Prize” in the subject line. Closing date: 3 May. Winners will be selected at random.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


7