In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.
Grand Illusion 
Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Charles Spaak, Jean Renoir
Starring: Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim
Running Time: 114 minutes
It’s something of a miracle that Grand Illusion is available to be watched these days. The original print was thought to be destroyed during an Allied air raid in 1942. It was later found in the 1960s then transferred from Germany to Russia to France, with none of them realizing that they had the original negative. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that it was rediscovered, and eventually it made its way to the Criterion Collection. And what luck! The Criterion version is absolutely beautiful.
Grand Illusion is set during the First World War, and it follows a group of French soldiers who are held as prisoners of war by the Germans. After two French aviators, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), are shot down by acclaimed German Rittmeister, von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), they arrive at the nearest German base. Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein are able to bond over their high social class, making the captivity seem more cordial than anything. After seeing the treatment of prisoners of war in other films, it’s shocking to see just how well the French are treated here. Even Maréchal, a working class man, is offered lunch immediately.
Yet even with this hospitality, the Frenchmen are determined to escape the prison. Upon meeting the other POWs, it is learned that they have been working on a secret dirt tunnel below their room. Before they are able to finish, however, everyone is transferred to other camps. De Boeldieu and Maréchal bounce from camp to camp, eventually getting settled into a mountain fortress. It is here where where the two once again encounter von Rauffenstein (still very friendly) and also a prisoner from the old camp, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio).
Even though the fortress is dubbed “inescapable”, the men immediately get to work on developing a plan. One tactic — to get the entire group of prisoners to cause a ruckus by playing wooden flutes — is sheer genius. This act is the most suspenseful of the film, as it focuses more on an actual prison escape, whereas the beginning is more of a social/political commentary.
The film has a lot to say in this regard, though it is difficult to understand the class relations without knowing quite a bit about what it was really like back then. Director Jean Renoir fought in World War I himself (Gabin even wears Renoir’s real uniform in the film), and his firsthand experience shows the vast difference between the two wars. The upper class in the first war act cordial with each other regardless of nationality, something unheard of just years later.
Filmed in 1937, not too long before the beginning of World War II, Grand Illusion is very much a portrait of its time. Given its overall statement and the general uneasiness of the world at this time, it’s easy to see why the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels declared this “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1”. The back story surrounding this film is absolutely incredible, and it only enhances the viewing experience today.