La Grande Illusion takes place in a German fortress where two French aviators – aristocratic Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and working-class Breton lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) – are held captive by monocled Captain von Rauffenstein (played by the silent film director Erich von Stroheim).
Himself an aviator during WWI, Renoir uses the prison as a microcosm to trace mutual sympathies between men of the same class. This humanistic conceit of bonds that tie people together regardless of their nationality or race ensured that Renoir’s film was banned in Germany and Italy during the Second World War, though it was acclaimed elsewhere as an anti-war classic. The prisoners’ rousing rendition of ‘La Marseillaise’ upon hearing of a French victory was later imitated in the Hollywood classic Casablanca (1942).
Renoir returned to the subject of prisoners-of-war for his late film Le Caporal épinglé (1962), starring Jean-Pierre Cassel.