Great Films: 'Grand Illusion' and Director Jean Renoir


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La Grande Illusion (also known as Grand Illusion) (1937) is one of the most respected anti-war film in history.  The film is directed by Jean Renoir, who co-wrote the screenplay. The story focuses on the touching relationships among a small group of French officers who are prisoners of war during World War I and are plotting an escape. It also spotlights a German and French officer—members of the upper class—whose gentlemanly conduct of the war has become an anomaly and no longer relevant to the new world order.

The great director Orson Welles, said about Renoir… "If I had only one film in the world to save, it would be Grand Illusion."

You can read a tribute to Renior written by Welles at

Kenneth Turan, the excellent film critic for the Los Angeles Times recently wrote, “Jean Renoir's 1937 Grand Illusion, (is) “one of the most admired — and one of the most feared — films ever made.”

It was the  first foreign language movie ever nominated for the best picture Oscar.

“Definitely not among the enthusiasts was Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany, who called the film 'Cinema Enemy No. 1.' Backing up his words with action, Goebbels had numerous prints of the film seized when the Germans occupied France during World War II. That original camera negative traveled back and forth across Europe and was lost for decades before being rediscovered in the 1990s at the Cinémathèque of Toulouse.

“This film is a model of simplicity and grace, with emotional effects that move you when you least expect it, the kind of great film that only a master can pull off. Especially when that master is Jean Renoir.”

Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum describes the film this way “A film about war without a single scene of combat, Jean Renoir's 1937 masterpiece about French and German officers during World War I suggests that the true divisions of that conflict were of class rather than nationality. The point is embodied in the friendship between two aristocratic officers, a German (Erich von Stroheim, in his greatest performance in a sound film) and a Frenchman (Pierre Fresnay), both of whom ultimately become sacrificial victims after a nouveau riche Jewish officer (Marcel Dalio) and a French mechanic (Jean Gabin) manage to escape from Stroheim's fortress to freedom… It's still one of the key humanist expressions to be found in movies: sad, funny, exalting, and glorious.”

The title of the film comes from a book—The Great Illusion by British economist Norman Angell—which argued that war is futile because of the common economic interests of all European nations.

During the First World War, two French aviators — aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu (played by Pierre Fresnay) and working-class Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) — embark on a flight to examine the site of a blurred spot on photos from an earlier air reconnaissance mission. They are shot down by a German aviator and aristocrat, Rittmeister (Cavalry Captain) von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). Von Rauffenstein, upon returning to base, sends a subordinate to find out if the aviators are officers and, if so, to invite them to lunch. During the meal, von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu discover they have mutual acquaintances—a depiction of the familiarity, if not solidarity, within the upper classes that crosses national boundaries.

DVD cover: Grand Illusion (Criterion Collection)De Boeldieu and Maréchal are then taken to a prisoner-of-war camp, where they meet a colorful group of fellow French prisoners and stage a vaudeville-type performance just after the Germans have taken Fort Douaumont in the epic battle of Verdun.

Maréchal and Rosenthal journey across the German countryside, trying to get to nearby Switzerland. Rosenthal injures his foot, slowing Maréchal down. They quarrel and part, but then Maréchal returns to help his comrade. They take refuge in the shed of a German farm woman, Elsa (Dita Parlo), who has lost her husband at Verdun, along with three brothers, at battles which, with quiet irony, she describes as "our greatest victories." She generously takes them in, and doesn't betray them to a passing German army patrol. Maréchal begins to fall in love with her, but he and Rosenthal eventually leave, after Rosenthal is healed. Maréchal promises to come back for Elsa and her daughter, Lotte, after the war.

Renoir was a French aviator during World War I. Gabin wears Renoir's uniform in the film.

In 1958, Renoir said "[La Grande Illusion is] a story about human relationships. I am confident that such a question is so important today that if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say ‘goodbye’ to our beautiful world."

Renoir briefly touches on the question of anti-semitism through the character of Rosenthal. Renoir created this character to counter the rising anti-Jewish campaign emerging in Adolf Hitler's government in Nazi Germany. Further, Rosenthal is shown as a symbol of humanity across class lines: though he may be financially wealthy, he shares his food parcels with everyone so that he and his fellow prisoners are well fed—when compared with their German captors. Through the character of Rosenthal, Renoir rebuffs Jewish stereotypes.

There is also a black French officer among the prisoners who appears to be treated the same as the other prisoners, and accepted as an equal by them.

The film won the awards for Best Foreign Film at the 1938 New York Film Critics Circle Awards and the 1938 National Board of Review Awards.

Sixty years later, Janet Maslin of The New York Times, called it "one of the most haunting of all war films" and an "oasis of subtlety, moral intelligence and deep emotion on the cinematic landscape.

"It seems especially disarming now in its genius for keeping its story indirect yet its meaning perfectly clear. Its greatest dramatic heights seem to occur almost effortlessly, as a tale of escape derived from the experience of one of Renoir's wartime comrades evolves into a series of unforgettable crises and stirring sacrifices."

Gabrielle and Jean by Pierre-Auguste Renoir,Jean Renoir (1894 – 1979) Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939) are often cited by critics as among the greatest films ever made. As an author, he wrote the definitive biography of his father, the celebrated Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Renoir, My Father (1962). Pictured at left: The young Jean Renoir with Gabrielle Renard in a painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

At the outbreak of World War I, Renoir was serving in the French cavalry. Later, after receiving a bullet in his leg, he served as a reconnaissance pilot. His leg injury left him with a permanent limp, but allowed him to discover the cinema, where he used to recuperate with his leg elevated while watching the films of Charlie Chaplin and others. After the war, Renoir followed his father's suggestion and tried his hand at making ceramics, but he soon set that aside to make films, inspired, in particular, by Erich von Stroheim's work.

In 1924, Renoir directed the first of his nine silent films, most of which starred his first wife, Catherine Hessling, who was also his father's last model.

During the 1930s Renoir enjoyed great success as a filmmaker. In 1931 he directed his first after Germany invaded France in May 1940, he fled to the United States with Dido.

In Hollywood, Renoir had difficulty finding projects that suited him. In 1943, he co-produced and directed an anti-Nazi film set in France, This Land Is Mine, starring Maureen O'Hara and Charles Laughton. Two years later, he made The Southerner, a film about Texas sharecroppers that is often regarded as his best American film and one for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Directing.  

In 1945 he made Diary of a Chambermaid, an adaptation of the Octave Mirbeau novel, Le Journal d'une femme de chambre, starring Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith. The Woman on the Beach (1947) starring Joan Bennett and Robert Ryan was heavily reshot and reedited after it fared poorly among preview audiences in California.

In 1975 he received a lifetime Academy Award for his contribution to the motion picture industry and that same year a retrospective of his work was shown at the National Film Theatre in London.


Visit your local library for these resources:

Grand Illusion (DVD)
by Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir films on DVD

The Notebooks of Captain Georges
by Jean Renoir, (1966).

Renoir on Renoir: Interviews, Essays, and Remarks
by Jean Renoir, Carol Volk, translator, (1989).

La Regle Du Jeu
by Jean Renoir, (1998).

by Jean Renoir, David Thompson, (1994).

An Interview
by Jean Renoir, (1997).

The Rules of the Game
by Jean Renoir, (1970).

Jean Renoir: a conversation with his films 1894-1979
by Christopher Faulkner, Jean Renoir, Paul Duncan, editor, (2007).



Screenshot from Grand Illusion: Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim.

DVD cover: Grand Illusion (Criterion Collection).

"Gabrielle et Jean," painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.



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