Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion bills itself as an “anti-war” film – so I was initially baffled at how…peaceful it was. Later I realized that may have been the whole point.
It’s set during World War I and sees Jean Gabin (who we last saw in Pépé le Moko) as a French pilot who gets shot down while taking his commanding officer (Pierre Fresnay) on a recon mission. The pair are sent to a series of different German POW camps, where they each participate in several escape attempts. That’s pretty much it for the plot.
But it still took me a good ten minutes to realize that they even were at war – because of how kindly and civilly they are treated by their captors. Erich von Stroheim is the German officer who shot down their plane (Stroheim is a familiar face from the silent era – seriously, this movie was like a retread of this blog), and we first see him leading a toast to his successful capture of our two leads. But then he adds that if the prisoners are officers, they should be invited to lunch with the rest of the officers that afternoon. Gabin and his C.O. turn up at the table, as ordered, and all the German officers go out of their way to treat them like welcome guests – Stroheim and Fresnay are aristocrats who already know each other from various diplomatic functions and spend most of the meal catching up, while the other German soldiers practice their French with Gabin and ask him about Paris. One even cuts his meat for him when he says his arm was hurt in the capture. It’s such a civil scene that I thought that the film was set during some unknown peacetime multi-national military drill training or something.
The whole film has moments like that. The German officers allow the French POWs to receive “care packages” from home, even though one officer is getting such lavish spreads that the POWs are eating better than the German sentries. Another French captive has theater connections, and is able to requisition a bunch of costumes so the prisoners can all put on a play to entertain themselves. Gabin lands in solitary confinement for a time, and when he kvetches to the German guard outside his cell about how bored he is, the guard gives him a harmonica. Stroheim is forced to shoot one of his prisoners as they’re making an escape attempt, but later visits him in the infirmary to apologize and talk about how bad he feels about it.
It is the most genteel, civilized war film I’ve seen; the soldiers aren’t behaving like enemies, but rather like competitors in a sports match. If they weren’t at war they’d be taking each other out for drinks. Especially the higher-up officers – Stroheim and Fresnay’s characters have a lengthy conversation about the schools they both went to, chateaus they’ve both visited, and other mutual acquaintances before talking about what a shame it is that they have to be meeting under these circumstances instead of at a gala or an opera house or something. There were only three moments when anyone was treated with anything resembling unkindness – and they were all cases when the prisoners were snarking at each other. In one instance – when Gabin says something anti-Semitic to a Jewish fellow prisoner – Gabin even apologizes less than a minute later.
Ultimately, I think the arbitrary nature of this war was Renoir’s point. The only reason these men are at war is because the leaders of their respective countries have decreed they do battle – and these same leaders are the only ones who seem to care about the reasons for battle. It’s only an accident of maps that pits these men against each other, and in some cases it’s only a sense of duty that is leading them to comply with their orders, and even so they’re only complying reluctantly.
Mind you, my own understanding of both history and human nature makes me skeptical about whether actual World War I prison camps were this civil. People in the throes of patriotic fervor can be cruel to outsiders. But – these same people often frequently have to be told who the outsiders are, who is a friend and who is a foe. And often it is our own political leaders who are making those kind of decisions, and sometimes the friend-or-foe ruling is similarly arbitrary. Leave us all alone, Renoir seems to be arguing, and let us make up our own decisions based on common experience, and we’d probably all get along much better.