La Grande Illusion (1937)

Jean Renoir’s pacifist classic is set in a German prisoner-of-war camp during WWI, where class kinship is felt across national boundaries.

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.

1937 France
Directed by
Jean Renoir
Produced by
Albert Pinkevitch, Frank Rollmer
Written by
Charles Spaak, Jean Renoir
Featuring
Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay

Ranked in The Greatest Films of All Time poll

Sight and Sound

Who voted for La Grande Illusion

Critics

Fabien Baumann
France
Alice Black
Ireland
Jean-Loup Bourget
France
Ramsey Campbell
UK
Phil De Semlyen
UK
John Ewing
USA
Paula Felix-Didier
Argentina
Veronica Fitzpatrick
USA
Molly Fusco
USA
Pablo García Canga
Spain
Charlotte Garson
France
Márton Kurutz
Hungary
Natacha Laurent
France
Mark Le Fanu
UK
Jean-Marc Leveratto
France
Zunzunegui Santos
Spain
Margaret Smith
Kate Stables
UK
Richard Taylor
UK
Guy Westwell
UK

Directors

Wes Anderson
USA
Roy Andersson
Richard Eyre
UK
Ahmed Jamal
UK
Frederick Wiseman
USA