La Grande Illusion Review

Film Still
  • La Grande Illusion film still


Jean Renoir's WWI masterpiece remains as moving and joyous as ever.

Declared the "Cinematographic Enemy Number One" by the Nazis after it won an Artistic Contribution Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1937, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion is to this day one of the most influential and hotly-debated war movies – or should that be anti-war movies? – ever made.

Centred on the bond forged between two opposing aristocratic soldiers, one a captured French Captain (Pierre Fresnay), the other his German captor (Erich von Stroheim), La Grande Illusion delineates what was considered by the old guard as ‘gentleman’s warfare’, a warfare that was lost in the mud of the trenches of WWI, as well as the impending breakout of WWII and the rise of fascism (when this film received its original release).

Aware they are of a dying breed, the two Captains maintain their shared sentiments and etiquettes in what is a subtly moving relationship which reflects both loyalty and class woes.

Elsewhere we have Jean Gabin’s salty airman Maréchal and  his eventual, language-barrier transcending relationship with Dita Parlo’s lonesome German farmgirl, a section of the film that was ruthlessly cut when the film resurfaced in 1946 due to its perceived sympathy towards the enemy.

Also of interest is Maréchal’s changeable but essentially brotherly relationship the the Jewish officer Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), which still remains a fascinating and provocative depiction of a friendship that is at points politically and racially charged. But with Renoir’s all-encompassing humanist side, he pleads for the advocacy of unification over division, and it’s what makes La Grande Illusion so inspired and so moving.

To those who simply can’t believe in a dashed romanticism that rears its head in the backrooms of war, La Grande Illusion will remain Cinematographic Enemy Number One. To the rest, it will remain a masterpiece.

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