Oscar Vault Monday – La Grande Illusion, 1937 (dir. Jean Renoir)

I first saw this in college for a class called “Coffee and Cigarettes: The Literature of Anxiety and Boredom” (yes, that’s really the official title of that class). I think we watched it to examine the situation the officers in the film find themselves in: a prisoner of war camp. They’re all educated men, all men who are doers, and suddenly they can’t do anything. At least I think that’s why we watched, I don’t recall much discussion after watching the film. Whatever the reason was, I’m glad we watched it; it’s a fabulous film, filled with amazing performances. It’s also one of the very first anti-war war films, a genre I tend to really love. It was the first foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture and one of only eight to do so: La Grande Illusion (French, 1938); Z (French, 1969); The Emigrants (Swedish, 1972); Cries and Whispers (Swedish, 1973); Il Postino (Italian/Spanish, 1995); Life Is Beautiful (Italian, 1998); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Mandarin Chinese, 2000); and Letters from Iwo Jima (Japanese, 2006). It was up against nine films the year it was nominated: Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Boys Town, Four Daughters, Jezebel, Pygmalion, Test Pilot, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Citadel and winner You Can’t Take It with You.

Jean Renoir, son of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, is such a wonderful filmmaker; I’ve seen a handful of his films (mostly due to my very awesome French film professor Ulysse Dutoit). This is my favorite of his, and of the ones I’ve seen his most fully developed. The characters are all fully formed, their motives for doing what they do completely understandable based on what we see of them during the film. The message of the film, or rather messages, are all very clear, but don’t necessarily hit you over the head. I also particularly like the time of when Renoir made this film – 1937. Here he was, making an anti-war World War I film, just a few years before the dawn of WWII. The French, as well as most Europeans and a handful of American in the know, knew that war was brewing. I think it must have taken quite some gumption to make such a film during such a political climate and I applaud him for doing it.

Jean Gabin is arguably the star of this film and he is nothing short of wonderful. He plays working-class hero Lieutenant Maréchal, the kind of man, the film argues, who will be the leader of the changed post-war world. Gabin was a huge star in France at the time this film was made and continued to star in films for decades.

My favorite performance in the film, however, is Pierre Fresnay’s aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu. He’s far more educated than most of the prisoners in the camp and actually spends quite a bit of his time with his captors. Some of my favorite scenes, and some of the most touching in the whole film, are between him and Erich von Stroheim’s Captain von Rauffenstein, also an aristocrat.

The two have more in common with each other than they do with their respective fellow officers. They also both realize that the world is changing and so is their place in it. The world of aristocracy as they knew it will soon be over and the two bond over these state of affairs. It is with their relationship that was see Renoir’s humanism at work. Are they really so different? Aren’t we all humans? Don’t we all just want to live our lives to the fullest? Why is one’s nationality so important? Why is it worth killing for? The two ruminate on these questions and as a viewer you can’t help but think Renoir has got quite a point. I don’t want to spoil the end of the film, but I will say I cried at the very last conversation these two share.

I can’t not mention how great the ensemble cast is. I think most other prisoner of war films, from Stalag 17 to The Great Escape, etc. owe a lot to this film. Really though, watching all three films together would make one hell of a triple feature. So if you’re a fan of those films, of war films, of great ensembles, of  French films or of film in general, I highly recommend you give this film a try.

If you’re interest in buying the film, you can do so here.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on September 27, 2010, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Great synopsis! I just viewed this for the first time about two months ago and I was a little ashamed that I’d waited so long. It sparked me on to checking out a lot more of Renoir films, Gabin films, and most importantly, poetic realism films.

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