Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion, a.k.a. Grand Illusion is a wonderful film about 2 French Officers during WWI who are captured and sent to a prison camp. Erich von Stroheim, best known for his role as Max Von Meyerling in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd, stars as a German Ace Captain von Rauffenstein (who shot down the 2 Frenchmen) and then gets reassigned to become commandant (he's not like Werner Von Klemperer, a.k.a. Colonel Klink) of a prison camp after sustaining serious injury by getting shot down. There's additional tension and class conflict between the French Captain De Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), who is an aristocrat and Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin) who is a mechanic. The film also portrays an underlying anti-semitism, with the character Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), who is slowing down an escape attempt when he strains his ankle. This is a really great film, voted in the top 250 of all time at IMDB.com.
Grande Illusion, La
Directed by - Jean Renoir
(1938) - B&W - 114 min
The conflicts and ironies of war are examined from various angles as we follow the lives of 2 captured French pilots during WWI. If you liked the Great Escape or Stalog 17, I bet you'll like this film too. The cinematography is outstanding and Jean Renoir's genius is in top form. In 1939, this film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, and should have won... but somehow got bested by Frank Capra's You Can't Take It with You. Renoir's film is still gripping, and the story about the disturbing consequences of war is timeless. If you've never seen it - you're in for a real treat.
Intro, B&W, credits, in French with subtitles. Two French pilots are shot down by the pompous Captain von Rauffenstein, who asks the officers to dine with him before they are sent to the prison camp. Once at the camp, they learn that the men are busy digging a long tunnel under the garden. French aristocrat, Captain de Boeldieu seems out of place due to his class and because he sports a monocle.
Our two French officers arrive at the German prison camp
Lieutenant Mar?chal, who was a mechanic back home, i.e. NOT an aristocrat, play by Jean Gabin
The prisoners are putting on a revue, singing and dancing, and dressing up like women in the folies bergere doing the can-can. They just learned that Douaumont, which was previously captured by the Germans is retaken. So Mar?chal breaks into song and belts out a French National song, which gets him sent to solitary confinement. A similar scene is used a few years later in Casablanca, where Corinna Mura, the lounge singer at Rick's cafe belts out La Marseillaise, the French National anthem.
Erich von Stroheim as Captain von Rauffenstein, after he gets shot down and becomes the commandant of the stalag. Like that old neck brace.... looks like a case for Johnny Cochran
The tunnel is now ready to go... and tonight is the big break out! But, in a painful twist - the men all get transferred to another camp. There's a great scene where Mar?chal tries to tell the incoming English prisoners (who have tennis racquets!) about the tunnel... but they can't understand.... don't speak French mate, sorry. When they get to the new prison, a twelfth century chateau, they meet a familiar face, Captain von Rauffenstein - who is relegated to commandant, after sustaining major injuries in a plane crash. Rauffenstein hates his new job, as he feels the job is beneath him, being an aristocratic soldier at heart.
Grande Illusion, La
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The aristocrat pilot, Captain de Boeldieu, played by Pierre Fresnay
The Czarina sends a special package to the prisoners - which they think is caviar... but turns out to be books. Angered by the gift, the men burn the crate of books. Again, they make plans for an escape, but this time they take advantage of the German's arrogance - and Captain de Boeldieu provides a diversion and gets shot. Meanwhile, Mar?chal and Rosenthal cleverly escape into the German countryside.
Captain von Rauffenstein, played by the great actor and director, Erich von Stroheim
Rosenthal hurts his ankle and is slowing down the escape. The two prisoners quarrel and the hoped for escape plans look bleak. Luckily, fate guides them to a farm, where Elsa - who is lonely, having lost her husband in the war, nurses them back to health. Mar?chal and Elsa become intimate - but alas, war calls and they must continue their escape. Will they make it? Will the war(s) ever end. That of course, is the Grand Illusion.
Lonely Elsa, the farm woman who lost her husband in the war, played by Dita Parlo