A deeply compassionate, never sentimentalized threnody for the European aristocracy rendered obsolete as the dodo bird by WWI's catastrophic carnage, Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion now stands as a universally recognized masterpiece, consistently ranked near the top in annual polls and film critics' lists. The situation wasn't always so propitious. Not long after it premiered to general acclaim at the Venice Film Festival, Joseph Goebbels, Germany's Minister of Propaganda, declared the film "Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1." Nazi thugs seized and destroyed every print they could get their grubby hands on. More than objecting to any suspected slur directed at the German nation, Goebbels's jackboot junta keyed into, and were properly dismayed by, Grand Illusion's grandest theme: the absurdity, by its very nature, of bellicosity itself.
From parallel opening scenes that introduce French officers Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and German aviator von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) in their respective HQs, where the French and German watering holes even resemble each other, Grand Illusion takes pains to highlight the cultural and social bonds that unite these men, as well as the nationalistic and militaristic barriers that divide their nations. Renoir's preferred discursive mode is ironic, registering little details like Boeldieu and Rauffenstein slipping into the lingua franca of English to cover their expressions of mutual admiration, or the sardonic juxtaposition of von Rauffenstein's being billeted in Wintersborn's chapel (bed under the crucifix, copy of Casanova's confessions on the nightstand), and large, grim ones like Elsa's (Dita Parlo's) family portraits, showing off her husband and brothers who were killed in battles she mordantly describes (with real pathos) as "some of our nation's greatest victories."
Underneath the brittle surface of Renoir's much vaunted "humanism" (never for a moment should it be mistaken for laissez-faire moralism), there lay a vast reservoir of indignation that had been brought to a fever pitch by the certainty that history was about to repeat itself as Europe fell under the shadow of totalitarianism. Renoir, though, was never one for tractates. Son to his famous painter father, Renoir sublimated this riot of roiling emotions into the precision of his compositions, which helps to explain the recurrence of a kind of paradigmatic shot that frequently punctuates Grand Illusion: a character (or group of characters) stands before a window. The camera traps them within the window frame like specimens beneath a bell jar, then moves beyond them to limn the open spaces just outside their reach, rendering palpable their yearning to escape from a certainly hopeless situation into one still hopefully uncertain. Thus the haunting final shot that tracks Gabin and Marcel Dalio, forging their way across wintry wastes toward the sanctuary of Swiss neutrality, remains one of the most elusively open-ended in all of film history.
By the same token, cinematographer Christian Matras and camera operator Claude Renoir contributed immeasurably to Grand Illusion's still-vital visual scheme. Renoir's restlessly mobile camera, subtly detailing the bonds and chasms between the prisoners by linking their routines and living spaces, owes much to his nephew's camerawork, which he once described as "supple as an eel." Matras would later bring his unerring eye for elegant lighting schemes to three of Max Ophüls's most spectacular postwar films. Joseph Kosma's score cannily uses a medley of popular songs that comment on the action in more or less obvious ways. The most recognizable instance occurs during the POWs cobbled-together variety show, when Maréchal busts in on the British soldiers' performance of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" (in drag, to boot) with a rousing rendition of "La Marseillaise." If the moment seems more than a little familiar, it's probably because Michael Curtiz and company borrowed (liberated?) it for Casablanca. Here again, the remarkable thing about Renoir's scene, what gives it its added punch, is the camera's seeming ubiquity; it's backstage, then it's in the footlights, from there it's at the very back of the hall as the men take to their feet, and, finally, it's front and center, capturing the look of inspired patriotism on the rank and file faces. The constantly shifting camera placement and the unusual "frontal" presentation of that last shot, which resembles a recruiting poster, work to undercut the scene's rah-rah factor, leaving it at once stirring and yet oddly distanced.
Another factor behind Grand Illusion's lasting power is the strength of its ensemble cast. At the start of a long and prolific career, Gabin was already cementing his image as the brooding loner (captured to perfection in Marcel Carné's powerful one-two punch of poetic realism Port of Shadows and Le Jour se Lève). Von Stroheim's career as a director was long past, but he was still milking his trademark "Man You Love to Hate" persona, already a caricature that was further reduced to ridicule in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. Dita Parlo, German by birth, was best known her role in Jean Vigo's riverine reverie L'Atalante. Renoir seems to have intended Marcel Dalio's character, scion to an arriviste Jewish family, as another slap in the face of reactionary forces like the ultra-nationalistic Action Française, in much the same way that his earlier film The Crime of Monsieur Lange can be seen as a revenge fantasy championing the Popular Front. Even the minor characters in Grand Illusion pack resonance. Julien Carette, the clownish Cartier, went on to be a pre-war Renoir regular. One of Boeldieu and Maréchal's fellow POWs, the cadastral engineer, is played by Gaston Modot, the lead in Luis Buñuel's excoriating L'Age d'Or.
Grand Illusion may not be the absolute pinnacle of Jean Renoir's cinematic art. That particular laurel remains reserved for The Rules of the Game. But those two films, along with La Marseillaise (a rousing historic epic with more than a little contemporary resonance) and La Bête Humaine (a blackly disturbing adaptation of Emile Zola's novel), open a window onto one of the world's great filmmakers as he's locked in deadly earnest struggle with the darkening world around him.