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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History


7