During the First World War, two French aviators, the aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and the working-class Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), set out on a flight to examine the site of a blurred spot found on photographs from an earlier air reconnaissance mission. They are shot down by a German aviator and aristocrat, Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), and both are taken prisoner by German ground forces. Upon returning to base, Rauffenstein sends a subordinate to find out if the aviators are officers and, if so, to invite them to lunch. During the meal, Rauffenstein and Boeldieu discover they have mutual acquaintances—a depiction of the familiarity, if not solidarity, within the upper classes that crosses national boundaries.
Boeldieu and Maréchal are then taken to a prisoner-of-war camp, where they meet a colorful group of French prisoners and stage a vaudeville-type performance just after the Germans have taken Fort Douaumont in the epic Battle of Verdun. During the performance, word arrives that the French have recaptured the fort. Maréchal interrupts the show, and the French prisoners spontaneously burst into "La Marseillaise". As a result of the disruption, Maréchal is placed in solitary confinement, where he suffers badly from lack of human contact and hunger; ironically, the fort changes hands once more while he is imprisoned. Boeldieu and Maréchal also help their fellow prisoners to finish digging an escape tunnel. However, just before it is completed, everyone is transferred to other camps. Because of the language barrier, Maréchal is unable to pass word of the tunnel to an incoming British prisoner.
Boeldieu and Maréchal are moved from camp to camp, finally arriving in Wintersborn, a mountain fortress prison commanded by Rauffenstein, who has been so badly injured in battle that he has been promoted, but given a posting away from the front, much to his regret. Rauffenstein tells them that Wintersborn is escape-proof.
At Wintersborn, the pair are reunited with a fellow prisoner, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), from the original camp. Rosenthal is a wealthy French Jew, a naturalized French citizen, the son of a Polish father and a Danish mother, who generously shares the food parcels he receives. Boeldieu comes up with an idea, after carefully observing how the German guards respond to an emergency. He volunteers to distract the guards for the few minutes needed for Maréchal and Rosenthal to escape. After a commotion staged by the prisoners, the guards are ordered to assemble them in the fortress courtyard. During the roll call, it is discovered that Boeldieu is missing. He makes his presence known high up in the fortress, drawing the German guards away in pursuit. Maréchal and Rosenthal take the opportunity to lower themselves from a window by a homemade rope and flee.
Rauffenstein stops the guards from firing at Boeldieu with their rifles and pleads with his fellow aristocrat to give himself up. Boeldieu refuses, and Rauffenstein reluctantly shoots at him with his pistol, aiming for his legs but hitting him in the stomach. Nursed in his final moments by a grieving Rauffenstein, Boeldieu laments that their usefulness to society (as aristocrats) will end with this war. He also pities Rauffenstein, who will have to find a new purpose in the emerging social order.
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 modest farmhouse of a German 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, and she with him, but he and Rosenthal eventually leave from a sense of duty to the war effort after Rosenthal recovers from his injury. Maréchal declares his intention to come back for Elsa and her daughter, Lotte, after the war.
A German patrol sights the two fugitives crossing a snow-covered valley. The soldiers fire a few rounds, but then the patrol leader orders them to cease fire, saying the pair have crossed into Switzerland. We last glimpse them from a distance, trudging through deep snow, their future uncertain.
According to Renoir's memoirs, Erich von Stroheim, despite having been born in Vienna, Austria (then the Austro-Hungarian Empire) did not speak much German and struggled with learning the language along with his lines in between filming scenes.
The exteriors of "Wintersborn" were filmed at the Upper Koenigsbourg Castle in Alsace. Other exteriors were filmed at the artillery barracks at Colmar (built by Wilhelm II) and at Neuf-Brisach on the Upper Rhine.
An early script version of La Grande Illusion had Rosenthal and Maréchal agreeing to meet in a restaurant at the end of the war. In the final scene, everyone there would be celebrating the armistice, but instead of these men, there would be two empty chairs at a table.
Renoir used the First World War (1914–1918) as a lens through which to examine Europe as it faced the rising spectre of fascism (especially in Nazi Germany) and the impending approach of the Second World War (1939–1945). Renoir's critique of contemporary politics and ideology celebrates the universal humanity that transcends national and racial boundaries and radical nationalism, suggesting that mankind's common experiences should prevail above political division, and its extension: war.
On the message of La Grande Illusion, Renoir himself said, in a film trailer, dating from the re-release of the film in 1958: "[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." Despite widespread interest in the subject, Renoir found it difficult to find a producer and distributor, having to "shop around" the project for years.
La Grande Illusion examines the relationships between different social classes in Europe. Two of the main characters, de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, are aristocrats. They are represented as cosmopolitan men, educated in many cultures and conversant in several languages. Their level of education and their devotion to social conventions and rituals makes them feel closer to each other than to the lower class of their own nation. They share similar social experiences: dining at Maxim's in Paris, courting dalliances with the same woman, and even know of each other through acquaintances. They converse with each other in heavily formal French and German, and in moments of intimate personal conversation, escape into English as if to hide these comments from their lower class counterparts.
Renoir depicts the rule of the aristocracy in La Grande Illusion as in decline, to be replaced by a new, emerging social order, led by men who were not born to privilege. He emphasizes that their class is no longer an essential component to their respective nation's politics. Both von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu view their military service as a duty, and see the war as having a purpose; as such, Renoir depicts them as laudable but tragic figures whose world is disappearing and who are trapped in a code of life that is rapidly becoming meaningless. Both are aware that their time is past, but their reaction to this reality diverges: de Boeldieu accepts the fate of the aristocracy as a positive improvement, but von Rauffenstein does not, lamenting what he sarcastically calls the "charming legacy of the French Revolution".
In La Grande Illusion, Renoir contrasts the aristocrats with characters such as Maréchal (Gabin), a mechanic from Paris. The lower class characters have little in common with each other; they have different interests and are not worldly in their views or education. Nonetheless, they have a kinship too, through common sentiment and experience.
Renoir's message is made clear when the aristocratic de Boeldieu sacrifices himself by distracting the prison guards by dancing around, singing, and playing a flute, to allow Maréchal and Rosenthal, members of the lower class, to escape. Reluctantly and strictly out of duty, von Rauffenstein is forced to shoot de Boeldieu, an act that de Boeldieu admits he would have been compelled to do were the circumstances reversed. However, in accepting his inevitable death, de Boeldieu takes comfort in the idea that "For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and me, it's a good way out", and states that he has pity for von Rauffenstein who will struggle to find a purpose in the new social order of the world where his traditions, experiences, and background are obsolete.
The critique of the romantic idealization of duty in La Grande Illusion is comparable to that in the earlier film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque.
In La Grande Illusion, Renoir briefly touches on the question of antisemitism through the character of Rosenthal, a son from a nouveau riche Jewish banking family (a parallel to the Rothschild banking family of France). His biographers believed that Renoir created this character to counter the rising anti-Jewish campaign enacted by 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 at Wintersborn who appears to be ignored by the other prisoners, and not accepted as an equal by them. When he speaks to them he is not responded to. For instance, when he shows his artwork, he is shrugged off.
Renoir seeks to refute the notion in La Grande Illusion that war accomplishes anything, or that it can be used as a political tool to solve problems and create a better world. "That's all an illusion", says Rosenthal, speaking of the belief that this is the war that will end war forever.
La Grande Illusion is a war film without any depiction of battle. Instead, the prisoner of war camp setting is used as a space in which soldiers of many nations have a common experience. Renoir portrays war as a futile exercise. For instance, Elsa, the German widow, shows photos to Maréchal and Rosenthal of her husband and her brothers who were killed, respectively, at the battles of Verdun, Liège, Charleroi, and Tannenberg. Ironically the last three of these battles were amongst Germany's most celebrated victories in World War I. Through this device, Renoir refutes the notion that one common man's bravery, honor, or duty can make an impact on a great event. This undermines the idealistic intention of Maréchal and Rosenthal to return to the front, so that by returning to the fight they can help end this war.
The score was written by the Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma, who also wrote the famous song "Autumn Leaves." The soundtrack also includes many well-known songs of the day from French, English, and German cultures. The uncredited musical director was the film and music critic Émile Vuillermoz, who had been a composer in his early career.
Songs:"Frou-Frou" (1897) lyrics written by Montréal and Blondeau, music by Henri Chatau, performed by Lucile Panis.
"Il était un petit navire" ("There Once was a Little Ship"), played by de Boeldieu with his penny whistle to distract the German guards from Rosenthal and Maréchal's escape, a traditional French song about a shipwrecked sailor who must cannibalize another sailor to survive. Later in the film, the fugitives Rosenthal and Maréchal shout the song sarcastically at one another as they have a near falling out. Ironically, the lyrics speak to their own condition of running out of food. As Maréchal realizes this, his singing trails off.
"Frère Jacques", a French nursery rhyme
"It's a Long Way to Tipperary"
"Si tu veux Marguerite" (1913) by Harry Fragson
"La Marseillaise", the French national anthem
After the film won a prize at the Venice Film Festival for "Best Artistic Ensemble" in 1937, and was nominated for the International Jury Cup, the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels declared La Grande Illusion "Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1" and ordered the prints to be confiscated and destroyed. Fearing a decline in fighting morale, French authorities banned the film in 1940 pour la durée des hostilités (i.e., as long as the war should last). This ban was renewed by the German Propaganda-Abteilung in October of the same year. When the German Army marched into France in 1940 during World War II, the Nazis seized the prints and negative of the film, chiefly because of its anti-war message, and what were perceived as ideological criticisms pointed towards Germany on the eve of the Second World War.
La Grande Illusion was a massive hit in France, with an estimated 12 million admissions.
La Grande Illusion, released by World Pictures Corporation in the U.S. premiered on 12 September 1938 in New York City; Frank S. Nugent in his review for The New York Times. called La Grande Illusion a "strange and interesting film" that "owes much to his cast",
Erich von Stroheim's appearance as von Rauffenstein reminds us again of Hollywood's folly in permitting so fine an actor to remain idle and unwanted. Pierre Fresnay's de Boeldieu is a model of gentlemanly decadence. Jean Gabin and Dalio as the fugitives, Dita Parlo as the German girl, and all the others are thoroughly right.
La Grande Illusion won the awards for Best Foreign Film at the 1938 New York Film Critics Circle Awards and at the 1938 National Board of Review Awards it was named the Best Foreign Language Film, for that year. At the 11th Academy Awards held on 23 February 1939, La Grande Illusion became the first foreign language film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Sixty years later, Janet Maslin 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"; according to Maslin:
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.
Film critic Roger Ebert also reviewed the film after its 1999 re-release, and added it to his list of The Great Movies:
Apart from its other achievements, Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion influenced two famous later movie sequences. The digging of the escape tunnel in The Great Escape and the singing of the "Marseillaise" to enrage the Germans in Casablanca can first be observed in Renoir's 1937 masterpiece. Even the details of the tunnel dig are the same—the way the prisoners hide the excavated dirt in their pants and shake it out on the parade ground during exercise. But if Grand Illusion had been merely a source of later inspiration, it wouldn't be on so many lists of great films. It's not a movie about a prison escape, nor is it jingoistic in its politics; it's a meditation on the collapse of the old order of European civilization. Perhaps that was always a sentimental upper-class illusion, the notion that gentlemen on both sides of the lines subscribed to the same code of behaviour. Whatever it was, it died in the trenches of World War I.
For many years, the original nitrate film negative of La Grande Illusion was thought to have been lost in an Allied air raid in 1942 that destroyed a leading laboratory outside Paris. Prints of the film were rediscovered in 1958 and restored and re-released during the early 1960s. Then, it was revealed that the original negative had been shipped back to Berlin (probably due to the efforts of Frank Hensel) to be stored in the Reichsfilmarchiv vaults. In the Allied occupation of Berlin in 1945, the Reichsfilmarchiv by chance was in the Russian zone and consequently shipped along with many other films back to be the basis of the Soviet Gosfilmofond film archive in Moscow. The negative was returned to France in the 1960s, but sat unidentified in storage in Toulouse Cinémathèque for over 30 years, as no one suspected it had survived. It was rediscovered in the early 1990s as the Cinémathèque's nitrate collection was slowly being transferred to the French Film Archives at Bois d'Arcy.
In August 1999, Rialto Pictures re-released the film in the United States, based on the Cinematheque negative found in Toulouse; after watching the new print at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, Janet Maslin called it "beautifully refurbished" and "especially lucid." The print was restored and released as the inaugural DVD of the Criterion Collection.