8. Film Review #1: Criterion Collection Spine #1: Jean Renoir: LA GRANDE ILLUSION (Grand Illusion) -- Part I

A detailed analysis and "things to look for" in the above film.


Things to Check Out (in orange)

Criterion Spine #1

One-disc. Directed by Jean Renoir, 1938, 114 minutes, B&W.
In French with optional English subtitles
1:33:1 aspect ratio


Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is singing along to a gramophone record of an old French song, "Frou Frou" (the gramophone itself clues us in that this is World War I) when he is summoned to a staff meeting with Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay). Boeldieu shows Maréchal and another soldier an aerial photograph which is apparently inconclusive. The three men all think the smudge on the photo is something different: a road, a canal, a railway. A new reconnaissance flight is ordered. The soldier cranks up the telephone. "Get me the fighter squadron."

A simple DISSOLVE and Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) and his aide walk through the door. It is a disconcerting transition. It is difficult to know where we are. Another gramophone dominates the right side of the screen and the observant viewer will notice that right behind it, there is a poster on the wall -- in German!

Rauffenstein downs a brandy, smokes and demands music. He orders his men to go and check out the French plane he just shot down. If there are any officers, they are to be "invited for lunch."

Maréchal (with his arm in a sling) and Boeldieu arrive, and are treated as honored guests, as Rauffenstein plies them with food and conversation -- in French! He knows Boeldieu's cousin, a count and military attaché in Berlin.

"He was a marvelous writer," Rauffenstein says -- in English! The effect is jarring. The festivities are somewhat subdued by the appearance of a soldier carrying a wreath for a dead French pilot. They all stand in respect.

RAUFFENSTEIN: "I'm sorry about this coincidence."

An old officer appears at the door to take custody of the prisoners.

A quick DISSOLVE and we are looking at the countryside through the window of a train. In a few seconds we land on a sign which reads, "Prisoner-of-War Camp Nr. 17 -- Officers' Camp."

The prisoners are lined up in a courtyard. Boeldieu and Maréchal both yawn. The camp regulations are read. A humorous bit of business occurs towards the end of the commandant's long list of "forbidden" actions: an older German officer begins to intone "strictly forbidden, gentlemen!" in German, after the commandant recites the rule. Maréchal, amused, repeats the German phrase to Boeldieu, ironically...

Gradually, the prisoners (we see a Russian and several English officers, as well as the French) are treated with a bit less hospitality. Boeldieu objects to being searched and threatens to report their treatment to Rauffenstein.

We next see a Frenchman, a Jew named Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), opening a large parcel from home, stuffed with delicacies, which -- as we see in a few more frames -- is better food than what the Germans are eating. Renoir again injects humor into a grim situation. Three German officers are eating soup, and conversing in German:

GERMAN OFFICER #1: "This tastes like an old sock."
GERMAN OFFICER #2: "What do they feed the French?"
GERMAN OFFICER #3: "Cabbage. But they have their parcels."
GERMAN OFFICER #1: "And the Russians?"
GERMAN OFFICER #3: "Cabbage roots. But no parcels."
GERMAN OFFICER #2: "And the English?"
GERMAN OFFICER #3: (in English): "Plum pudding!"

Rosenthal and his fellow prisoners sit down for a veritable feast with the food from his parcel.

Another DISSOLVE, and Cartier, the actor (Julien Carette) is speaking to the camera, shot from slightly above head-level, through a window. He is teasing Boeldieu. The camera pulls back to reveal the POV. One of the other officers and Maréchel are in a room. The other officer is washing Maréchal's feet (he can't do it himself -- he has a broken arm). He asks Maréchal if he can trust Boeldieu, and Maréchal responds that he can. He then tells Maréchal about an escape tunnel that they have been digging for months.

DISSOLVE to German officer doing a bed-check. He leaves and the men secure the room, pushing a chair against the door, putting a blanket over the window.

They uncover the tunnel and show Maréchal (and us) how they're doing it, including the clever tin-can-with-a-string "alarm" which the man in the tunnel can pull in an emergency and then be dragged out. Cartier (it is his turn) descends and begins to dig. In the room above, Maréchal is sure he heard something. One of the men volunteers to check it out, by "going to the latrine."

Meanwhile, in the tunnel, the dirt is falling on Cartier from above, and he is in obvious distress. A straight CUT. The volunteer runs into the German officer Sgt. Arthur (Werner Florian), who is accompanying a detail carrying a dead body on a stretcher. Sgt. Arthur informs him that the man was shot trying to escape.

Another CUT back to the tunnel. Cartier is about to pass out, and he yanks on the tin can string.

CUT to the tin can falling onto a bed. It makes no sound.

A delicious PAN to the left, and we see Maréchal and the others standing at the door, straining to hear any sounds. None of them saw the tin can fall.

The prisoner returns with the news of the dead escapee. Just as he tells them that he is dead, he sees the "alarm." They pull Rosenthal out by his feet and after some brandy, he is soon revived. Tomorrow, it will be Boeldieu's turn.


Here begins a scene which is the first of three in this film which were later "appropriated" by other directors. John Sturges's The Great Escape), in this case.

After getting rid of some tunnel dirt in the garden, the men gather around a trunk of clothing which they have received. They are planning to put on some sort of morale-boosting theatrical revue. Of course, they are delighted to find some feminine garments. A young, "angel-faced" soldier, Maisonneuve, is recruited to put on a dress.

"Anything to amuse," he says, taking the dress from Maréchal.

In a moment, he returns, dressed as a woman. "It's funny, isn't it?" he keeps repeating.

But no one is laughing. Renoir gives us a gorgeous, slow leftward PAN, revealing face after face of these women-starved men, stunned with shock at the sight of this beautiful "woman."

A quick FADE TO BLACK (hereinafter "FTB") and we see a wagon entering the camp gates. Several elderly German women are standing off towards the side. A CLOSE-UP of one of the woman: "Poor boys!"

Then Renoir shows us the "boys" -- young soldiers marching.

Inside, the prisoners are ironing their new clothing. Boeldieu looks out at the German soldiers with an amused look on his face.

"Out there, children play soldier ... in here, soldiers play like children."

At this point, Renoir pulls back the camera for a medium shot which shows the whole group at work on the clothing. Switching back and forth between medium and close shots, a long scene follows where Renoir takes his time letting the characters explain their individual motivations for wanting to escape from this camp.

Notice how Renoir never lets the scene become static -- the characters are all busy with their work, and the dialogue flows naturally.

As the conversation winds down, the fifes begin to play outside. From a tight shot on one of the officers, the camera pulls back as the men huddle around the window. Renoir is now shooting them from the outside looking in for the first time in the scene. Very effective composition.

The men are stirred by the sound of the fifes, despite the fact that the Germans are playing them.

A nice medium shot of all six men (Cartier is standing on the table) and then a quick CUT to a close shot of the men, PANNED from right to left.

BOELDIEU:: "I loathe the fifes."
OLDER OFFICER: "Still, it gets to you."

At this point, just as the camera lands on Maréchal, the fifes stop and we hear loud marching feet.

MARÉCHAL: "It's not the music that gets to you. It's the marching feet."

Cartier has burned a whole in the pants he was ironing. His shtick is wonderful here.

Another quick FTB and we see a poster, proclaiming a German victory at Douamont (the date is February 26, 1916). Earlier, Maréchal had observed that these notices always exaggerated, just as the French themselves did. And besides, he had said, there were no bells ringing...

Well, now the bells are ringing. Indeed, the Germans are celebrating and singing. Sgt. Arthur saunters out of the festivities into the courtyard, and the camera follows him as he sings, smokes and salutes until he reaches a wall. The camera then PANS up to reveal our six officers in a nearly identical composition to the one which ended the previous scene!

The men quickly decide to put on their show, and invite the Germans. After a short return to the celebrating Germans, Renoir cuts right to the prisoners’ revue.

Cartier begins with a song and dance number, followed by the rest, all dressed in frilly women’s clothing. Eventually, Cartier joins the others with a little “stage taxicab” with a silly horn bulb which he blows a few times. In the middle of all this nonsense, there is a quick CUT to Maréchal and a few others, backstage, reading a newspaper. CUT back to the stage (Cartier is dancing with one of the “girls”), as Maréchal comes running out yelling, “Stop! Stop! We’ve retaken Douamont! It’s in the German papers!”

And now follows one of the great scenes in cinematic history!

Many people believe it is the best scene in the movie! The movie, Casablanca, that is! Yes, this is the scene that Michael Curtiz lifted lock, stock and barrel from this film!

The men remove their wigs and the band begins to play The Marseillaise. Although there is no “battle of the anthems” as in Casablanca, the debt Curtiz owes to Renoir is evident in a simple, short traveling shot where Gabin moves towards the edge of the stage, and glares down ferociously at some German officers, as the surging patriotic feelings from the song swell up in the background. Magnificent!

Renoir plays out the rest of the anthem with PANNING shots on the newly invigorated faces of the French officers.

A CUT to a very short scene of scurrying German officers.

Another quick FTB and we are on Maréchal, using a spoon to try and make a hole in a wall. He has succeeded in making an indentation about the size of a silver dollar. Again, we are disoriented. Maréchal looks disheveled, but determined.

The camera PANS over towards a barred door, just as a guard enters. He is obviously in a solitary cell. The guard, in German, asks Maréchal what he’s doing, and comes closer for a look.

“A little hole. To escape,” Maréchal tells him simply. The guard peers in for an even closer look, and Maréchal pushes him back and runs out of the cell, locking the door behind him.

Instead of following Maréchal, Renoir keeps his camera on the poor, bewildered guard, who is shouting for help. We hear a scuffle coming from outside the cell, and soon Maréchal is carried back in by the guards, who toss him back on his tattered mattress.

Bells are ringing again. Maréchal looks defeated, his eyes fluttering open and shut. This quick, slightly humorous scene (1:04) gives us much information in a greatly elided plot, at this point. We know that Maréchal has probably been trying to escape or make trouble for his captors, and also that he hasn’t had any luck.

The ringing bells anticipate the CUT.

Yet another poster. “German Troups Recapture Douamont,” dated April 17, 1916.

After a brief scene in which the French and Germans comment on the news, we are back in Maréchal’s cell. Initially, it seems like an exact repeat of the previous scene.

[NOTE how Renoir likes to do things in pairs. This will be evident as we make our way through the film analysis.]

The camera lingers on Maréchal, who now sports a beard, and then -- just as before -- PANS to the cell door as the guard enters.

As he saunters over towards his prisoner, we are perhaps wondering if he’ll try to escape again. The guard seems to ask why he hasn’t eaten, and Maréchal freaks out.

“Get off my back! I can’t take it anymore! I’m fed up! he screams.

He rants and raves and the guard offers him three cigarettes. Maréchal doesn’t budge. The guard puts the cigarettes on the bed and pulls out a harmonica. Again, no reaction from the prisoner. The guard lays the harmonica on the mattress, as well, and leaves.

Maréchal picks up the harmonica and begins to blow into it softly and without purpose. After a few seconds, CUT to the guard, standing right outside the door, listening.

The men are planning their escape soon, but regret leaving Maréchal behind. But, conveniently, he returns from his solitary confinement just at this moment! (We never learn why he was confined). The men discuss their post-escape plans. They plan to meet in Amsterdam where they look forward to tulips and cheese. But just then Sgt. Arthur appears at the door and tells them that they are all being transferred to other camps.

MONTAGE of train ride to Wintersborn.

[This pairs off nicely with the earlier (and shorter) scene, also shot from a train window.]

Rauffenstein is not the same man as he was earlier in the second scene of the film. He is wearing a neck brace and seems to have been severely injured. He is drinking coffee. He meets with the new prisoners, his old charges from Camp Nr. 17. He gives them the new "French" regulations, followed by a "tour" of the heavily fortified castle. As they move from place to place, Rauffenstein seems determined to let the captured officers know that they will never succeed in escaping from this place. The following scene is interesting because of the subtle interactions between Rauffenstein, Boeldieu and Maréchal regarding class distinctions. Notice that Rauffenstein and Boeldieu once again slip into English during the conversation:

RAUFFENSTEIN: (Showing a large gun) "We have 25 more guns like this one."
BOELDIEU: "Uh-huh."
RAUFFENSTEIN: "I suppose you know the Maxim gun?"
MARÉCHAL: "Very well, sir." (He jabs a finger towards his broken arm.) "But, personally, I prefer the restaurant!"
RAUFFENSTEIN: "Touché ... Maxim." (He suddenly switches to English.) "That reminds me. I used to know a girl there in 1913. Her name was, ah -- Fifi."
BOELDIEU: "Do did I!"

After inquiring about their other friends, who are being held nearby, Renoir PANS the camera upward to the top of the fortress, until ...

CUT. Rauffenstein and the three prisoners are high above the ground.

RAUFFENSTEIN: "A 120-foot drop!" (He's told them exactly how much rope they'll require! Rauffenstein has shown them how they will later escape!)
BOELDIEU: "So kind of you to show us around the grounds."

The tour is over. Rauffenstein apologizes to Boeldieu that he cannot have his own room, because he will have to share a room with other prisoners. Boeldieu says he would not have accepted anyway. The guards inspect the prisoners' hats, which annoys Maréchal.

FTB. In the background, the prisoners are enjoying a snowball fight. Rosenthal, reading a book, walks down a hill towards the camera. Rosenthal and a guard have an untranslated conversation (anyone?)

Cut to the five new roommates, discussing the diseases of the different classes (Rosenthal caught something from a "brunette" who was a friend of his mother!) Rosenthal's final word on the subject is certainly meant to mean something more universal:

ROSENTHAL: "We'd each die of our own class diseases, if war didn't make all germs equal."

Rosenthal has some kind of hand-made map. Maréchal comes over to see it. Notice the detail in the set design behind Rosenthal and Maréchal. Renoir pulls back the camera ever so slightly, and we suddenly see a new character on the right side of the screen -- a black man, who is working on some kind of wood burning art.

Something Renoir and Kurosawa have in common: They both like to introduce a plot element into some dialogue, telegraphing that later on this dialogue will become action.

Rosenthal and Maréchal studying the map. It will mean a walk of 200 kilometers.

ROSENTHAL: "That means walking 15 nights on six lumps of sugar and two biscuits a day."

In a scene which, frankly, confounds this reviewer, the black man suddenly gets up with his artwork and shows it to Rosenthal and Maréchal:

BLACK OFFICER: (Proudly) "There! My picture's finished. 'Justice Pursuing Crime.' (He shows it to the two men, still studying the map.) It came out all right."

Both Rosenthal and Maréchal give the woodcut a one-second glance and, returning to their map, utter a perfunctory, "Oui." The black officer turns away, a look of both disappointment and irritation etched on his face!

What does this scene mean? Although Rosenthal, the Jew, is respected by nearly all the gentiles in the film (with the glaring exception of Rauffenstein, of course), this man is treated with obvious contempt -- by the two protagonists! (One possible simple explanation: Maréchal and Rosenthal are too engrossed in their map-reading to pay any attention ... however, for the remainder of the film, any appearance of this man shows him sequestered from the others.)

Maréchal is braiding a long section of rope. The lookout alerts everyone that the guards are coming to search the room. Boeldieu hides the rope outside the window.

Inspection. Notice the way Renoir handles this scene, and creates a dramatic entrance for Rauffenstein. Six guards enter the room. The camera faces the door, and remains there until all six guards have walked past.

He then PANS left to Maréchal reading, while a guard searches his pillows: (reading from his book): "I am weary as a girl after 22 nights of love." (He turns towards the guard): "Twenty-two nights of love. Imagine that!" The camera pulls back slightly and PANS left to the next prisoner, who is also reading a book. The guard taps his leg and he lifts them, allowing the guard to search his blanket. Another PAN left and we arrive on "the teacher" (John Dasté) and his guard, who makes him stand up and inspects the stool he was sitting on. The camera PANS left a bit more, to a guard who is just standing there. Suddenly, his expression changes and he snaps to attention and barks: "Achtung."

The camera now PANS to the right. Rauffenstein makes a dignified entrance. "Continue!"

Two guards are searching Boeldieu's area, while he sits and reads a book. Rauffenstein sees this. "Not that corner!" he snarls to the guards.

A crucial scene, as far as the larger message of this masterpiece, which concerns the "old aristocracy is crumbling" theme with the implications of what might be to come. In other words, in 1938, on the eve of yet another world war, Renoir gives us a conversation between two enemy officers which will hereafter be utterly impossible:

Boeldieu rises as Rauffenstein approaches. They salute each other.

RAUFFENSTEIN: "Give me your word that you've nothing in here against regulations."
BOELDIEU: (For a split second, Boeldieu offers up the tiniest of smirks [after all, the rope is hanging outside the window, and is, truthfully, not "in here."]). "You have my word." Rauffenstein bows slightly and salutes. "But why my word and not theirs?" Boeldieu indicates the others with a shake of his head...
RAUFFENSTEIN: "The word of a ... Rosenthal ... and a Maréchal?"
BOELDIEU: (firmly): "It's as good as ours."
RAUFFENSTEIN: (not convinced): "Perhaps."

The guards leave. The rope is retrieved and Maréchal continues to braid it.

FTB. Boeldieu and Rauffenstein are in a chapel, perhaps, talking about their mutual acquaintance, Boeldieu's cousin, the Count.

Notice the way that Boeldieu and Rauffenstein virtually mirror each other's movements -- the walk, the cigarette, etc.

The scene continues with another quick exchange of some English dialogue (about a racing horse Rauffenstein rode to victory)...

And, of course, this scene is another one of Renoir's parallel moments -- an almost verbatim repetition of the previous scene:

BOELDIEU: "Why did you make an exception of me by inviting me here?"
RAUFFENSTEIN: "Why? Because your name is Boeldieu, career officer in the French Army, and I am Rauffenstein, career officer in the German Imperial Army."
BOELDIEU: "But my comrades are officers, as well."
RAUFFENSTEIN: "A Maréchal and a Rosenthal, officers?"
BOELDIEU: "They're fine soldiers."
RAUFFENSTEIN: "Charming legacy of the French Revolution."
BOELDIEU: "Neither you nor I can stop the march of time."
RAUFFENSTEIN: "Boeldieu ... I don't know who will win this war. But whatever the outcome, it will mean the end of the Rauffensteins and the Boeldieus."
BOELDIEU: "We're no longer needed."
RAUFFENSTEIN: "And don't you find that a pity?"
BOELDIEU: "Perhaps ..."

After a bit more conversation,

FTB. Renoir now gives us the flip-side of Boeldieu/Rauffenstein, the two aristocrats.

Maréchal and Rosenthal are bonding. A good scene about anti-Jewish stereotypes.

Next, a humorous, but slightly chilling, scene.

One of the Russian officers invites the French to share the contents of a large crate they have received -- from the czarina! They are expecting caviar and vodka and when they open the crate, they discover it is packed with

Part Two