Reality of war is no ‘illusion’

Jennifer McCormack

“Grand Illusion,” one of the most revered films of all time, was co-written and directed by Jean Renoir, son of Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. The movie, made in 1937, takes place during World War I. In this masterpiece, Renoir employs everyday events to make political statements about war, changing women’s roles, the fall of aristocratic rule and the establishment of new wealth in the reconstructed European economy.

A great deal of the narrative is loosely based on Renoir’s personal experiences as a soldier fighting during World War I. Much of “Grand Illusion” takes place in a POW camp. While bloody combat scenes are the norm for most war films, “Grand Illusion” is different; here blood and guts are replaced by a study of interpersonal relationships, especially those between the POWs and their jailers.

Renoir uses “Grand Illusion” to showcase the effects that nationality and social class can have on relationships, as well as on waging war. For example, the film features an aristocratic German commandant who befriends an upper-class French prisoner. Because of their shared background, the commandant treats the French officer with respect. In fact, the commandant has less interaction with soldiers who are lower-class Germans than he does with the upper-class Frenchman. Another difference between “Grand Illusion” and other war films is that this depiction of the German officer strays from the normal stereotype — the embodiment of pure evil — and instead the film portrays him as a complex character who has good characteristics as well as bad ones.

“Grand Illusion” has become a model for certain elements which can be seen in later war movies. For example, a rousing rendition of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” is sung by French soldiers in “Grand Illusion” and is also included in “Casablanca,” made five years later.

The plan that prisoners hatch to escape through a tunnel in “Grand Illusion” is echoed in the 1963 film “The Great Escape.” There are even soldiers who dress in drag in “Grand Illusion,” like Col. Klinger in the television version of “M*A*S*H.”

“Grand Illusion,” which is in French and German with English subtitles, will be playing on Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 3:30 and 7 p.m. and Monday at 7 p.m. in the Connelly Center Cinema. Admission is $3 for students and $4 for all others.

At the Monday night showing, there will be a presentation led by Elana Rose Starr, who teaches in the communication department and serves as publicity director for the CFS.