American critic Roger Ebert noted two moments during La Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir’s classic war film, that have directly inspired two famous scenes from equally lauded, more commercial products: The tunnel digging of The Great Escape and the singing of the Marseillaise to anger the Germans in Casablanca. The context Ebert uses for these comparisons are simple. Whilst La Grande Illusion has proven influential on even the biggest studio films, the film is seldom about spectacle.
Simplistically put, the film details the lives of french POW’s during World War I, yet, as Jean Renoir said, ‘[The film is] a story about relationships’. In choosing the setting of the Great War, Renoir finds an apt background to study the nature of humanity which, even seventy-five years on, is as relevant today as it was in 1937. The message is worn somewhat on its sleeve, yet one cannot chastise the filmmakers for their obvious transparency. Humanity, even during hardship, can transcend racial, national and class boundaries and that this humanity, above political division and ideologies, should ultimately prevail.
Yet in the film’s underlying message, the crux of the narrative, is the notion that war, through whatever means of justification, is questionable and that the notion that it can be used for the greater good or to accomplish anything is highly suspect. It is portrayed as a futile exercise, most notably in the scene where the German widow shows Maréchal and Rosenthal photos of family who have died fin battle. Despite the decisive victories secured at the times of their deaths, had her family (her husband and brothers respectively) made any significant impact on the conflicts’ outcome?
Whatever answers are found, there’s no denying the relevance of the film today. The questions it asks are as thought provoking as they are timeless whilst never becoming too aggressive or saccharine. For that alone, La Grande Illusion deserves its praise.
‘It is a grand illusion’, says Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcell Dalio) on the proponents of war. That says it all.