Grand Illusion Movie Review: A Prescient Anti-war Film in the Canon of Cinema

Review: Grand Illusion explores the idea of social class and the bonds that are formed between people who are on opposite sides of a conflict. Through the interactions between the French and German soldiers, the movie highlights the common humanity that exists between people, regardless of nationality.

jean renoir grand illusion review 1937 film
Grand Illusion (1937), directed by Jean Renoir and Spine #1 in The Criterion Collection

Grand Illusion is a classic film from 1937 directed by Jean Renoir. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made and has had a significant influence on the history of cinema. The movie is a masterpiece of humanistic filmmaking and a commentary on the futility of war and the bond between people from different backgrounds.

The story revolves around a group of French prisoners of war during World War I who are held captive in a German prison camp. The film explores the relationships that form among them, despite their diverse social and cultural backgrounds, as they plan their escape. Along the way, they encounter a variety of challenges and obstacles, but ultimately, they find that the bonds they have formed are stronger than the barriers that divide them.

Grand Illusion is a powerful critique of war and the futility of conflict. The film shows the horrors of war and the toll it takes on individuals and communities. It also highlights the absurdity of war and the arbitrary nature of borders and boundaries that divide people.

The film also explores the theme of social division, particularly the divide between the working-class soldiers and the aristocratic officers. Despite these differences, the characters form close bonds that challenge their preconceived notions and expose the illusion of social class.

The bonds that form among the characters are a central theme of the film. The characters come from different social and cultural backgrounds, but they develop deep and meaningful friendships that transcend these differences. Their loyalty to one another is a powerful force that sustains them in the face of adversity. Grand Illusion is a humanistic film that emphasizes the shared humanity of all people. It promotes empathy and understanding, encouraging viewers to see beyond the differences that divide us and recognize our commonalities.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Grand Illusion is its complex portrayal of the characters, which goes beyond simple stereotypes and binary representations. The film’s characters are multifaceted and are portrayed with depth and nuance, revealing their complexities and contradictions.

For example, Lieutenant Maréchal, played by Jean Gabin, is initially presented as a tough, no-nonsense soldier who is not afraid to speak his mind. However, as the film progresses, we see a softer side to Maréchal as he forms a close bond with Captain de Boeldieu, played by Pierre Fresnay. Maréchal’s loyalty and compassion are also evident in his interactions with the other prisoners, particularly Rosenthal, the Jewish banker who is initially mistrusted by some of the other inmates.

Similarly, de Boeldieu is not simply a caricature of the aristocracy, but a complex character who struggles with the contradictions of his class and his duty as a soldier. His friendship with Maréchal and his interactions with the other prisoners reveal a deep empathy and sense of humanity that transcends his social status.

The film also portrays the working-class mechanic Cartier, played by Julien Carette, in a nuanced and sympathetic light. Cartier is initially dismissed as a buffoon by the other prisoners, but as the film progresses, we see a vulnerable and sensitive side to him that is often overlooked.

The portrayal of Rosenthal, the Jewish banker, is also notable, as the film challenges the stereotypes and prejudices of the time by presenting him as a fully realized character with his own fears, hopes, and desires.

In addition, the film’s portrayal of the German officers in the prison camp is also complex and nuanced. While some of them are portrayed as cruel and indifferent to the suffering of the prisoners, others are shown to be sympathetic and even compassionate, revealing the internal conflicts and contradictions within the German military hierarchy.

Grand Illusion has had a significant influence on cinema since its release in 1937, with its exploration of complex themes and its innovative use of cinematic techniques inspiring generations of filmmakers. The film’s focus on the human cost of war, its critique of nationalism and class divisions, and its message of shared humanity continue to resonate with audiences today, making the film as relevant as ever.

One of the ways in which Grand Illusion remains relevant today is its message of unity and commonality among people, regardless of their nationality or background. The film emphasizes the shared experiences and emotions of the characters, regardless of their nationality, highlighting the futility of war as a means of resolving conflicts. This message is particularly relevant in today’s globalized world, where issues of identity and nationalism continue to fuel conflicts around the world.

Moreover, the film’s nuanced portrayal of characters and their interactions also has relevance today, as it challenges simplistic stereotypes and encourages empathy and understanding across different cultures and social classes. The film’s portrayal of the relationships between the French and German prisoners of war, for example, highlights the potential for solidarity and cooperation among people from different backgrounds, even in the most challenging circumstances.

Reviews for Movies like Grand Illusion (1937)

The film’s use of cinematic techniques, such as long takes and naturalistic lighting, has had a lasting influence on cinema, inspiring countless filmmakers to experiment with new forms of storytelling and visual language. Grand Illusion has been cited as a major influence on filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, François Truffaut, and Quentin Tarantino, among others.

Finally, the film’s exploration of the futility and tragic consequences of war continues to resonate with audiences today, as conflicts and wars continue to ravage the world. The film’s powerful message of the human cost of war and the need for empathy and understanding among people from different cultures and backgrounds remains as important and urgent as ever.

Grand Illusion remains a timeless masterpiece of cinema that continues to inspire and resonate with audiences today. The film’s exploration of complex themes, its nuanced portrayal of characters, and its innovative use of cinematic techniques have had a lasting influence on cinema, inspiring generations of filmmakers to push the boundaries of storytelling and visual language. Most importantly, the film’s message of shared humanity and the futility of war remains as relevant and urgent today as it did over 80 years ago.


Genre: Drama, History, War

Own Grand Illusion (1937) on DVD from The Criterion Collection

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Grand Illusion Film Cast and Credits

grand illusion movie 1937 criterion


Jean Gabin as Lieutenant Maréchal

Pierre Fresnay as Captain de Boeldieu

Erich von Stroheim as Rauffenstein

Marcel Dalio as Rosenthal

Dita Parlo as Elsa

Julien Carette as Cartier


Director: Jean Renoir

Writers: Jean RenoirCharles Spaak

Cinematography: Christian Matras

Editors: Marthe HuguetMarguerite Renoir

Composer: Joseph Kosma

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