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From the Masters at the Movies series in the March 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

Masters at the Movies, Take 3: Sheehan on La Grande Illusion

Robert Brent Toplin, March 2008

For this series, Masters at the Movies, we invite well-known historians to write about a film or films that they consider especially attractive as subjects for the study and teaching of history. The third essay in this series features James J. Sheehan's analysis of the 1937 French movie directed by Jean Renoir, La Grande Illusion. Sheehan's choice is often identified as one of the 10 most significant motion pictures in the global history of cinema production. As Sheehan points out, La Grande Illusion "reflects Europeans' complex hopes and fears during the era of the Popular Front, appeasement, and the rising threat of Nazism." The story, which is set during the First World War, contains pacifist messages that are delivered through Renoir's portrayals of the French and the Germans as fundamentally decent and humane people. Renoir's movie shows that wartime conditions often turn potential friends into lethal enemies. Sheehan reminds us that there is much more to La Grande Illusion than simply an antiwar appeal, and that in some respects Renoir's intriguing messages are left open.

At the center of La Grande Illusion are three French captives who are held in a German prisoner of war camp—an aristocratic officer, a working-class pilot, and a wealthy Jewish artillery officer. These POWs are under the thumb of an authoritarian German officer who takes an immediate liking to one captive, the aristocratic French officer. The two men later acknowledge that the war is destroying their class and their way of life. Renoir shows there is an enormous social gulf between the various Frenchmen, yet conditions of war have brought the men together in a common cause. The director portrays the Jewish soldier as a kind and generous individual who is eager to share packages of food with other POWs. Not surprisingly, the Nazis and Italian fascists tried to ban this movie, since it delivered sentimental portraits of Frenchmen and Jews and raised serious questions about the consequences of war.

La Grande Illusion shows the French as eager to escape. The prisoners' efforts to achieve freedom are sometimes comic and often tragic. Eventually, the pilot and the Jewish officer manage to break out from an imposing castle-like prison, to which they had been transferred after many escape attempts. Their flight is assisted by the aristocratic French officer's diversionary tactics. Reluctantly, the prison's German commander shoots the officer (he admires the distinguished Frenchman's courage but must perform his "duty"). Later, the French hero dies, and the German officer mourns the loss. Meanwhile, the two escapees are traversing the snowy fields and mountains of Germany in an effort to reach freedom. Cold and hungry, they seek shelter and encounter a lonely German woman who lives in an isolated location. The attractive widow, who has lost a husband and brothers in the war, helps the weary fugitives and becomes romantically involved with the French pilot. After the tired fugitives recover, they must continue their flight, for German armies are nearby. The pilot expresses hope that he can return to the German woman after the war. In a final scene, the escapees trek across the snow into Switzerland. A few German soldiers observe their movement out of the war zone and call them "lucky."

Jean Renoir, the second son of the impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, had a long career as an accomplished director, writer, producer, and actor. Orson Welles called him the greatest director of all time. Renoir developed ideas for the plot of La Grande Illusion from his personal experiences. During World War I, a French pilot named Pinsard managed to ward off the German attackers and thus helped to protect Jean Renoir, who was taking reconnaissance photos from a plane. Legend had it that Pinsard had been shot down several times during the war and yet had managed to escape from his German captors. Years later, when Renoir met with Pinsard, he said to the war hero, "Listen old boy, tell me your escape stories . . . . Maybe I can make them into a film." The director interviewed other former POWs, too, and fashioned a tale from bits and pieces of these war memories.

Interestingly, the aristocratic German officer in the movie is played by Erich von Stroheim, a familiar figure in many of the early Hollywood and European movies. Stroheim often portrayed a militaristic, Prussian type or a haughty German character. He became known in Hollywood as the actor "everybody loves to hate." In real life Stroheim presented himself as an Austrian aristocrat and former army officer of the Hapsburg Empire. In fact, he was the son of a lower middle-class Jewish hat-maker, and he had no personal military experience.

—Robert Brent Toplin (Univ. of North Carolina at Wilmington) is a member of the editorial advisory board of Perspectives on History and edits the Masters at the Movies series, which he launched.