Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir’s 1937 pre-war classic, has certain thematic, though not narrative similarities with his later The Rules of the Game. In both films, the dividing lines between people and groups, between class and race, serve as the backdrop for substantial portions of the story. In Grand Illusion, Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) are shot down in German territory by a German officer, Capt. von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim). After a brief meeting and lunch with von Rauffenstein, the prisoners are carted off to a prison camp for officers. There they narrowly miss out on an escape attempt before being moved, and through the use of montage and some well-placed dialogue, we learn they made other unsuccessful attempts at escape. That takes them to a special camp for those officers with a history of escape attempts, where they again meet up with von Rauffenstein, who now is in charge of this camp.
One could read that description and begin to think this a run of the mill prison escape film. It is nothing of the sort. As noted above, it is interested in things that divide people. It is interested in class, racial, linguistic, and national distinctions. The somewhat comic aspect of it all is that one wonders one good such distinctions are in prison. In these prison scenes, I was reminded of The Bridge on the River Kwai, where such distinctions are of immense importance to the British. The same is true here as well, though we are only shown the officer side of things here. Note that none of the characters has a first name, but they are all known by their formal title, like Lt. Maréchal, Capt. de Boeldieu, Lt. Rosenthal, and even the German guard, Lt. Arthur. There is a sort of officer’s code that stretches across lines of nationality, even as two nations war against the other. This is set up almost immediately, as the first scene in France takes place in a bar that has music playing. This is where Maréchal and de Boeldieu meet up before their ill-fated journey to Germany. The film then cuts immediately to Germany, after the plane crash, and Capt. von Rauffenstein entering a bar and ordering very similar music to be played. The men are on opposite sides of the battle, but they have something in common that transcends the ongoing war.
Racial distinctions are similarly noted. While the prison camp contains officers, and there is much respect between them all, they still divide themselves according to race, with a separate barracks for distinct nationalities such as Russian and French. And yet even within the French quarters, we learn that one of the men is Jewish, and there is a sense in which he is both above and below the other officers in his room. His supplying them with good food definitely endears him to the group, but there seems to be an underlying tension that comes out of long-standing prejudice against Jews in general.
That the class and race distinctions are placed next to one another make this film quite an interesting piece. Where there is commonality because of class, there is distinction because of race or nationality. However, lest we think that if class and race are the same it provides two people with an immediate camaraderie, we have the example of our main characters, Maréchal and de Boeldieu, neither of whom ever seems to really enjoy the other’s company. Because even though both are officers, de Boldieu is of higher rank, and so it is almost as if he must lower himself to be in the presence of Maréchal. There is always a sense that de Boeldieu is uncomfortable with the rest of the Frenchmen, though extremely comfortable with von Rauffenstein.
Thus, the film does not simply moralize and suggest that if one finds someone of their own class and race, they will find camaraderie. In fact, just the opposite. When the film is set in the prison, camaraderie and friendship seem impossible because of the constant attention to distinctions and differences. However, the film’s final 30 minutes provide hope that such distinctions as race, language, and class can be overcome. One can, in fact, find companionship with someone outside of the limited boundaries with which he is presented by society. One need not be controlled by such things. And as the two men struggle up a snowy hill in the final shot, it becomes clear what a difficult and arduous journey it is out of such a society. What a challenging and fascinating film! I expect it that I have only but scratched the surface here, and that it will yield even greater truths upon repeated viewings.