The French director Jean Renoir made La Grande Illusion in 1937 'because', he said 'I am pacifist'. The film is a condemnation of war and what it does to the participants on both sides.
At first glance the film's plot suggests a straightforward prisoner of war escape drama set during the First World War. But the first few scenes of La Grande Illusion establish immediately one the film's central points: the class sympathy between the film's French and German officers, and the class divisions between them and their men.
The film opens as the French airforce Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and his Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) are shot down by the German Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim). The German captain orders his new French conquests come to dinner and there is an immediate bond between Rauffenstein and Boeldieu based on their aristocratic backgrounds and their lives as career soldiers.
Boeldieu and Maréchal then join other French prisoners who are plotting to escape from their prisoner of war camp. Initial appearances suggest typical guard/prisoner relationships. But beneath these appearances the similarities and sympathies between the French prisoners and the German guards become clear. The German guards are mainly old, weary of the war, and sick of eating food that tastes like old shoes.
The French prisoners discuss their reasons for escaping and reveal the ambiguity of their situation: their capture has allowed them to escape both the war and the narrow confines of their lives. Only Boeldieu maintains his distance from the group, a cold, impersonal and superior figure.
The sympathy between captor and captive is broken apart as the French prisoners receive news that French forces have recaptured the fortress of Douaumont (during the Battle of Verdun) and the prisoners proudly sing the Marseillaise. This is the greatest show of solidarity between the prisoners, but it also marks the deepest penetration of the war into the camp.
The unity is broken, but not irretrievably.
Maréchal is confined to a cell for leading the singing. When he screams with frustration at his imprisonment, a German guard comforts him with cigarettes and a mouth organ. His prisoner pacified, the guard wanders away singing the same song we saw Maréchal sing at the start of the film.
The camaraderie and unity of the first camp is torn away as the prisoners are transferred to a more bleak and regimented second camp. Here it is Boeldieu who finds friendship as he is reunited with the German officer Rauffenstein who is the new camp's commander. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu gloomily discuss the future of their class. Rauffenstein declares, 'Whoever wins this war, the end of it will be the end of the Rauffensteins and Boeldieus.' Their conversation is littered with shared reference points and, without question or hesitation, the officers slip between German, French and English.
Maréchal and another prisoner, the Jewish Rosenthal, are still hoping to escape, however. A plan is hatched and in the process of trying to stop the escape attempt, Rauffenstein must shoot Boeldieu. The war forces Rauffenstein to kill the man he respects.
The last third of the film has Maréchal and Rosenthal fleeing across German countryside, increasingly bitter and argumentative. They are befriended by a lonely German farmer's wife whose husband and brothers have been killed in the war.
The warm relationship established between the two prisoners and the woman and her daughter offers hope that a new kind of world may be created. It is a world of friendship like that of the first prison camp, but this time it is across linguistic and national boundaries.
The soldiers and the farmer's wife do not skip between languages like the German and French officers, but a far deeper understanding is developed. She explains how her husband was killed at Verdun, the very battle that sparked Maréchal to sing the Marseillaise earlier.
This time Maréchal's loyalties are not expressed through the national anthem, but in hesitant German as he learns to say, 'Lotte hat blaue Augen' ('Lotte has blue eyes').
At times La Grande Illusion is heavy handed about its message, unlike other Renoir films.
But like other Renoir films it is remarkable for the depth of its humanity. The war lurks in almost every scene yet it is never shown. Its futility and wastefulness are seen instead through glimpses of brave, ordinary men.