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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 firstname.lastname@example.org with “Grand Illusion Prize” in the subject line. Closing date: 3 May. Winners will be selected at random.