La Grande illusion, 1937

The opening scenes of La Grande Illusion provide a subtle reflection of the old European social order during the First World War, as Captain de Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay) studies aerial surveillance maps from the safe distance of his office in order to plot out military strategy. There is an aberration in the photographs, and de Boieldieu decides to investigate the area, accompanied by a rugged, enlisted pilot named Marechal (Jean Gabin). Their plane is shot down by a stern and rigid German officer, Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim), who orders the soldiers to determine the ranks of the captured prisoners, and to invite them to lunch…but only if they are found to be military officers. Despite their opposing allegiances, de Boieldieu finds greater commonality with his captor, von Rauffenstein, than with his own fellow countrymen, who find him distant and inaccessible: reminiscing about dinner parties at Maxim’s, speaking in the foreign language of English, moving in the same social circles. As aristocratic, career officers, both men are witnessing the gradual erosion of their inherited privilege and the resulting power shift to the working class. However, while de Boieldieu accepts the reality of modern times as a consequence of the French Revolution, von Rauffenstein resists its inevitable tide, and believes that observing the rules of privileged society are paramount to the rules of war. Soon, the disparity between the two social classes emerge: the aloof and regimented “old order” of de Boieldieu and von Rauffenstein who are riding out their obsolescence with the illusion of fighting a gentleman’s war, and the vital and motivated “new order” of Marechal and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) who will risk their lives to fight in the Great War in their own mistaken illusion that, one day, they will return to their civilian lives and reap the benefits of a lasting peace.

La Grande Illusion is a sublimely poignant and lucidly insightful commentary on the social legacy of the Great War in Europe. Filmed in 1937 under the looming advent of World War II, La Grande Illusion serves as a haunting elegy for the tragedy of the First World War and a relevant cautionary tale on the immeasurable toll of war. Using mundane events and conversations to depict life in a prisoner of war camp, Jean Renoir compassionately captures the tumultuous climate of profound social and political change: the changing role of women, the demise of aristocratic rule, the creation of new wealth (and new social order) in a free market economy. Stylistically, Renoir employs mesmerizing, long, rapid tracking shots and introduces sound to reflect the chaos and uncertainty. Note the reassuring melody of Marechal’s harmonica after an emotional breakdown, and the arranged diversion of the German guards using flutes. Inevitably, the officers’ path of glory proves to be inextricably bound to the idealistic belief that there is an underlying, redemptive purpose in war. However, like the idea of a war to end all wars, it is an elusive and unattainable grand illusion.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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