Earlier this month, the Oscars happened, at which, to my great surprise and delight, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite took home Best Picture in addition to three other awards. It bested eight competitors, including the movie I had expected to win, Sam Mendes’ 1917. In other words, a groundbreaking non-English-language movie about class barriers was up against a stirring humanist movie about World War I. If we go back eighty-one years in Oscar history, we find a movie that fits both of those descriptions: Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, notable for being the very first “foreign language” film to be nominated for Best Picture (in a field of ten). After a vexing stint of Nazi suppression, Grand Illusion has been well and truly canonized, and is now regarded as one of the few fully successful anti-war films (or, more precisely, anti-nationalist, though one might argue that’s a distinction without a difference). Between its prison-escape plot and its themes of unlikely friendship and etiquette, Grand Illusion is a film with many descendants.
The prison escape film is a sturdy genre, boasting such classics as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, A Man Escaped, Cool Hand Luke and The Shawshank Redemption. Some of these films might take injustice as an overt theme, but often their true excitement is more mechanical. We want to see the escape succeed because it’s a puzzle, a test of strength and resourcefulness. The guards might be abusive or merely onerous, but the desire to evade them is strong either way. Grand Illusion certainly presents escape as entirely voluntary, though as a member of the “prisoner of war” subcategory, it presumes that every escape attempt is a patriotic duty. Renoir’s film set the cinematic template for how to deal with the pesky problem of moving and hiding the dirt while trying to dig one’s way out — a template later found in both The Great Escape and Escape from Alcatraz, both of which were based on true stories, leaving us with the tantalizing possibility that some of the real-life participants might have been familiar with Grand Illusion. Or maybe “down the trouser legs” is just the best way of getting rid of dirt. In any case, while Grand Illusion devotes some energy to the logistics and unforeseen complications of two separate escape attempts, its focus isn’t as procedural as some of these later films. The characters have a lot more on their minds than getting out.
Renoir’s film came out at a time when the skies over Europe were darkening once again; it was banned by Goebbels and praised by Roosevelt. There must have been an added poignancy to the film’s lament for a lost age, as the realization slowly dawned that the tragedy of World War I had not quite ended. The elegy for a more gentlemanly society, before mechanization and fascism changed the rules of engagement, is continued in Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Grand Illusion begins with a German pilot shooting down a French plane and then inviting its occupants to dinner. The gentility of the whole thing is almost too much to believe from a twenty-first century standpoint, though Renoir based his script (co-written with Charles Spaak) on his own experiences in the war. Watching this movie for the first time in well over a decade, I had remembered Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) being shot by Major von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) while attempting to escape over a rooftop (though in actuality he was creating a diversion from the true escape). What I forgot is that he is not killed outright but is allowed a calm deathbed scene, in which the two men are able to look each other in the eye and set the record straight. Renoir avoided the brutality of the trenches altogether; the World War I story he wanted to tell was, improbably, one of decency and human connection.
That connection is not exactly universal, though. Another of the most frequently mentioned themes of the film is the way that class distinctions are given more weight than differences in nationality and even language. Boeldieu and Rauffenstein become friends because they’re both aristocrats, peering at each other through their monocles. One of the things I learned reading Barbara Tuchman’s classic history of the beginning of the war, The Guns of August, is just how incestuous the politics of the time were, with many members of European royalty being related to each other in some way. This fact also calls to mind the film’s famous conclusion, in which the border between nations, covered in snow, is shown to be quite arbitrary and elusive. All of this is not to say that Boeldieu is somehow antagonistic to the working-class prisoners he joins in the escape attempt, just that much of the dialogue plays up the distance between them. Renoir isn’t as confrontational on class issues as many leftist films from the silent era to today have been, but he’s too observational a filmmaker to ignore them.
Two final and highly specific examples of Grand Illusion influencing a later film should be mentioned. In an early sequence, the shifting fortunes of the war are epitomized by newspaper headlines about Fort Douaumont near Verdun, France, which is captured by the Germans, retaken by the French, and then lost again. The first event is celebrated by the guards at the POW camp with the rousing anthem “Die Wacht am Rhein.” When news of the turnabout arrives, the French prisoners sing “La Marseillaise.” This sequence is droller and less outwardly combative than the famous scene in Casablanca where a roomful of refugees drowns out the Nazis, but as we’ve already seen, it was a more polite situation altogether. The second example shows that my reference above to 1917 wasn’t entirely incidental. Both movies include scenes in which their heroes come across a widow and her small child (if I remember correctly, 1917 doesn’t specify that the woman is a widow, nor is she the biological mother, but she’s on her own at least at the moment). In the Mendes film, the scene is just one of several quick breaks that serve as relief from the throbbing intensity of the piece, but Renoir gives Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) ample time to fall in love with Elsa (Dita Parlo, second-billed despite not appearing until the final twenty minutes), as another example of a connection that transcends national boundaries. These scenes show the devastation of war without resorting to blood and guts.
Focusing on the influential nature of Grand Illusion probably doesn’t do much to dispel the notion that it’s one of those classics that belongs in mothballs, more worthy of respect than love. For each of the individual elements discussed above, I can think of at least one other movie I enjoy more. But this is the one movie that brings all of those elements together, and it does so with a casual elegance personified by the distinct flavors of coolness of its three stars, Gabin, Fresnay and von Stroheim. Few movie moments can match the exquisitely odd poignancy of the scene in which the gathered prisoners of war stare in silence at a man wearing a dress. (You had to be there.) For excavating some of the bedrock truths of the human condition, Renoir has few peers.