World War II hasn’t started yet, but the rise of Nazi Germany is still apparent in 1937. Although set in World War I, Grand Illusion reflects upon contemporary times and the road to World War II. Although mostly an anti-war film, little of the war is actually seen. In fact, there are no battles, but the events of the war occur off-screen. Most of the action comes from the characters in the prisoner of war camp, and as prisoners (as de Boeldieu points out) , they naturally attempt to escape whenever the opportunity presents itself.
In prison, there are two types of people: the prisoners and the jailers. In the film, the prisoners again and again try to subvert their captors and attempt to escape. For example, after Maréchal and de Boeldieu enter the camp, a group of French prisoners try to give them hints without the guards noticing. The actor whistles, sings a song, and subtly tells them to hide their valuables. This, among other actions, weren’t in direct conflict against a higher authority, but the prisoners nevertheless subverted and undermined them.
Maréchal attempts to help an English speaking prisoner on an another occasion. After spending multiple weeks digging a hole to try to escape, the French prisoners get transferred to other camps. Whilst seeing the new prisoners walk in, Maréchal runs up a British prisoner and tries to tell him about the hole in French, but the new prisoner could not understand. Unfortunately, this attempt to challenge and subvert the prison guards’ authority ends in bitter failure.
On the other hand, the prisoners did in fact come into direct conflict with their jailers. While staging a vaudeville show, Maréchal breaks the news that the French have retaken Fort Douaumont in the battle of Verdun. Maréchal subsequently begins to sing and inspires his fellow prisoners to sing the French national anthem. Afterward, Maréchal pays the price by being put in solitary confinement. Here he suffers and even tries to break out but is thwarted by the Germans. Although constantly trying resisting the higher authority, a German outside his cell hands him a harmonica to ease the suffering. Here, the German himself implicitly resists his superiors’ orders to not interact with a prisoner in solitary confinement.
Later on, Maréchal, de Boeldieu, and Rosenthal end up at a castle where von Rauffenstein is the one in charge. De Boeldieu and Von Rauffenstein, both being aristocrats, hit it off and take a liking to one another. Von Rauffenstein takes him apart from the group and even has a touching conversation on how the war will end along with the need for classy soldiers such as themselves.
It’s very interesting to note the similarities between de Boeldieu and officer Schultz from The Great Dictator. Both are aristocrats and officers. Both sport a classy mustache. Neither of them speaks too much, and when they do, it’s usually brief and concise. Both are pilots in World War I and both crash their planes. Even if de Boeldieu is French and Schultz is German (or rather Tomanian), if Schultz wore a fancy monocle, it’d be pretty difficult to tell them apart.
After witnessing the Russians act up and rouse the guards, de Boeldieu hatches a brilliant plan to help Maréchal and Rosenthal escape. De Boeldieu arranges for many prisoners to obtain flutes and instructs them to all play at once at a certain time. Naturally, the guards come to each of their rooms and confiscate the instruments. After that, the prisoners continue to make noise and rouse the guards once more. After this series of butting heads with the authority in charge, the prisoners are ordered into the courtyard and a roll call ensues.
After realizing that de Boeldieu is not present at the roll call, von Rauffenstein and his guards grow confused. De Boeldieu, in a flashy manner, begins to play his flute high above the guards. The guards being chasing and shooting at de Boeldieu. Here, Maréchal and Rosenthal take this opportunity to escape from the castle. Von Rauffenstein and the guards catch up to de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein pleads with him to come down and give himself up. He even speaks to him in English so that the others wouldn’t understand him while also trying to establish solidarity. De Boeldieu refuses and after his final, greatest act of resisting authority, he is shot by von Rauffenstein!
Although de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein are classy, aristocratic warriors, Renoir communicates that their time in history is over. Renoir writes in a note, “In 1914, men’s spirits had not yet been warped by totalitarian religions and racism. In some respects that world war was still a war of formal people, of educated people. I would almost dare say, a gentlemen’s war. That does not excuse it. Politeness, even chivalry, do not excuse massacre” (Renoir and Spaak 8). As a director, Renoir isn’t exactly challenging any authority, but challenging the idea of a “gentlemen’s war”.
Furthermore, Renoir challenges the ideas of class distinction as shown by the relationships between the French prisoners and von Rauffenstein. On top of that, the character of Rosenthal challenges predisposed notions of antisemitism and nationality. Rosenthal, a rich Jewish prisoner who wasn’t even born in France, shares his food with the rest of his comrades. The food that Rosenthal receives allows the prisoners to eat even better than their German caretakers. His family owns land, and by that logic, he claims he is more French than some of his fellow prisoners. Thus, Renoir smashes Jewish stereotypes by challenging society’s preconceived notions of a typical Jewish person.
Thus, the film Grand Illusion constantly elicits themes of resistance and sequences of those in lower power resisting those with authoritative power. With the threat of World War II looming around the corner, the film’s anti-war message attempts to reach out to its audience in order to resist the oncoming war. However, the drums of war will continue to beat and Nazi Germany will start a global battle a few years after.
– Jhonny Garcia