At the end of La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937), two prisoners of war, working class engineer Marechal (Jean Gabin) and wealthy Jew Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) attempt an escape from a German patrol across a snowy mountainside. There are shots, then an order that guns be put down: “They are over the border.” The men are no longer in Germany but in neutral Switzerland. The camera pans to show two small, dark figures, black shapes against the white, white snow on which no dividing line can be seen. “Are you sure that’s Switzerland?”, Marechal asks moments before. “It’s all so alike.” Rosenthal, the man with the map (who has possibly the least illusions of anyone in this film) comments, “Of course. You can’t see frontiers. They were invented by men. Nature doesn’t care.”
Renoir believed in“ the division of the world by horizontal frontiers, and not into compartments enclosed in vertical frontiers”,1 class rather than nationality. Associated with the Popular Front2, class is central to Renoir’s work. And yet nothing in this film is easy to categorise. Even horizontal frontiers are invented by men, and men are still a part of nature, who doesn’t care for such divisions. If the class system is a machine, then human connections, human idiosyncrasy, human nature, are the spanner in the works.
Marechal has been shot down and taken prisoner with the aristocratic de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay). They stay together throughout various incarcerations and escape attempts. They support each other against criticisms3 but are in many ways the two people between whom the most stringent border is maintained. It is maintained by de Boeldieu and continually assaulted by Marechal. In a final attempt, before his escape, Marechal makes his most focused attack on de Boeldieu’s reserve: “We’ve been together eighteen months and still you call me ‘vous’4.” “I say ‘vous’ to my mother and ‘vous’ to my wife,” De Boeldieu replies. It’s a chilling moment. De Boeldieu’s separation from fellow prisoners is easily explained by class differences. Such a separation from those most intimate to him is different.
Von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim), head of Winterborn camp, recognises de Boeldieu at once as a fellow aristocrat. They understand each other. Unlike other characters, they slip easily from language to language, share memories, acquaintances, values. Von Rauffenstein seems almost infatuated by de Boeldieu, yet de Boeldieu retains with von Rauffenstein the same cool distance he has with Marechal. Linked by class, they are not truly united.
The First World War marked radical changes in society. While dying de Boeldieu tell von Rauffenstein that for people like them, death at war is a “good solution”, an exit from a life that even von Rauffenstein admits is “useless”. De Boeldieu understands what is changing and his own inability (or his lack of desire) to change with it. von Rauffenstein has refused, till now, to recognise this. He tries to force his life into the pattern he desires. No wonder he must be held together by a corset of leather and metal.
And yet de Boeldieu is not simply an aristocrat who would rather die than change. Unlike von Rauffenstein, he does not despise Marechal. Incapable of being intimate with him, he respects him. He may not want to change but he can enable change, by enabling the escape of both Marechal and Rosenthal, the working classes and the Jews, twin horrors of the French aristocracy. This is no altruistic self-sacrifice. De Boeldieu dies wearing the white gloves that link him to von Rauffenstein and baffle Marechal. He owns his death. He looks like the Pied Piper, sitting on the snowy roof with his little flute, but it is only himself that he leads away. As he climbs higher, the shadow of the staircase thrown on the castle walls reminds one of the inside working of a clock. De Boeldieu is caught in the machinery of change but unlike von Rauffenstein he works his own way out. He is the author of his fairy tale5.
Marechal cannot break down the barriers between himself and de Boeldieu, but he can negotiate another complex relationship with the ‘other’- with Rosenthal. Rosenthal is generous. He shares what he has, takes his turn. One senses that he knows how fragile his acceptance by others is. He calls himself a “Jew”, talks about miserliness, so no on else can do it first. And indeed, at his lowest moment, Marechal says what we know to be true:“ I never could stick Jews.” That this is true is important, because when Marechal returns, we understand that he realises how little a part being a Jew actually is of what constitutes Rosenthal. He’s simply human. When, at the end of the film, Marechal says, with love: “Goodbye you dirty Jew.”
Rosenthal bats back, “Goodbye old mate.” In this exchange Marechal has what he couldn’t get from de Boeldieu: an honest acknowledgment of difference alongside a genuine equality of friendship – class displaced by humanity. This is the hope of a future is worth having.
But maybe this future is illusory. An early idea for the film’s end was a scene at Maxim’s, where Marechal and Rosenthal agree to meet after the war. At their table are two empty chairs. They have either died or retreated back into their differences. The present ending is superior but such a bleak idea is worth examining, especially in relation to the film’s title.6 In Les Regles du Jeu Renoir writes and speaks7 a critical line: “…on this earth there is one thing which is terrible, and that is that everyone has their own good reasons.”
No act is arbitrary, Renoir understands, and we must understand that no part of his work is arbitrary. Despite his human connection with Rosenthal and later with Elsa, Marechal nastily snubs the black officer who shares a room with him at Wintersborn. Like de Boeldieu’s comment that he says ‘vous’ to his wife, this moment is quickly passed over, but we should not be quick to discount it. Many borders are redrawn in this film (between gender, race, class and sex), but not all. Perhaps it is the idea that they could be that is the great – and sweet – illusion.
Le Grande Illusion (1937 France 114 mins)
Prod. Co: Réalisations d’Art Cinématographique Prod: Albert Pinkovitch and Frank Rollmer Dir: Jean Renoir Scr: Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak Phot: Christian Matras Mus: Joseph Kosma Ed: Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir Prod Des: Eugène Lourié
Cast: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim
- Jean Renoir, My life and my Films (De Capo Press, 1974): p.161. ↩
- The French Popular Front (Front Populaire) was an alliance of left wing groups, socialists and communist, lead by Leon Blum, powerful in France between 1936-1938. ↩
- Marechal tells the curious POW’s at Hellsbore that while odd, they can trust de Boeldieu, while de Boeldieu tells von Rauffelstein that “their word is as good as ours” when Von Rauffelstein is surprised that he should be asked to accept the word of honour of “a Rosenthal or a Marechal”. ↩
- French has two words you “you”- vous- which is formal, and tu, which is intimate. ↩
- Renoir writes: I am incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairy tale. Renoir, My Life and My Films, p.161 ↩
- The book The Great Illusion (1909) by British writer Norman Angell argued that war between industrial countries was futile because conquest did not pay. It is often cited as a source for this films title, but its arguments seem far from Renoirs humanists concerns. ↩
- In Les Regles de Jeu Renoir plays the part of Octave. ↩