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2004 Mini Reviews

Classic Film Spotlight: Grand Illusion (1937)

Grand Illusion
(La Grande Illusion)
Directed by Jean Renoir
Starring Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim, Pierre Fresnay
Running TIme: 114 minutes

Renoir's Grand Illusion is an anti-war film, but don't expect another All Quiet on the Western Front. In many ways, Renoir's film is the anti-thesis of these films, such as All Quiet, that capture the horrors of war. Grand Illusion is instead about the good nature of people, about brotherhood, companionship, but most importantly, it's about decency.

Grand Illusion takes place during World War One, mostly in German prison camps. The story centers around a small group of French prisoners. They are a diverse group of men, many of them having little in common with each other. Yet they transcend the limitations presented to them, and genuinely make the best of their situations. They do this by working together and helping each other, and this becomes the central theme throughout the film.

The film says a great deal about social status. For instance, Captain Boieldieu is a high ranking Officer, and also an aristocrat, who has a much higher education than the rest of the prisoners. He has little in common with the prisoners, but more in common with the captors. Yet, Boieldieu is among the most chivalric of all the characters in this film, eventually making a tremendous sacrifice in the interest of his friend's welfare. Thus, Grand Illusion acknowledges that a division based on social status exists, but it takes a back seat to virtue.

There is also racial diversity, including anti-semitism targeted towards the character of Lt. Rosenthal. He is a Jewish French citizen and he does embody the stereotype of the wealthy Jewish family. Just like with social status, the film also acknowledges the existence of anti-semitism, and in one pivotal scene a character actually succumbs to it, if only for a moment. The character of Rosenthal also goes against the Jewish stereotype, primarily by providing for all of his compatriots out of his parcel deliveries. Rosenthal is as much a part of the "brotherhood" as any of the other characters, and the fact that he is Jewish is seldom mentioned, and only as a device to exemplify the irresponsibility of stereotypes. Again, diversity is presented only as an obstacle, but not a barrier.

Grand Illusion is an artistic film, but is unlike any other. Only one word can accurately describe the film, and that is beautiful. Not beauty of the aesthetic nature, but the beauty of humanity. Illusion is as effective, if not moreso, than it's anti-war counterparts. This is not done by condemning the actions of a few, but instead by extolling the virtues of humanity itself. As a result, Renoir's film is deservedly considered a masterpiece. In my opinion, it is among the greatest films of all time.