La Grande Ilusion (1937)
Humanist French Classic
Jean Renoir’s humanist classic La Grande Illusion is a rarity: a film that is decidedly political, while managing to maintain a generosity of feeling. It is a film that is best described as ‘anti-war’ - hardly surprising, given that it was made on the eve of war and that its focus is on the worldwide conflict that preceded it. The film documents the experience of three French officers held as prisoners by the German forces during WW1: an aristocrat, de Boeldieu; a wealthy Jew, Rosenthal; and working-class, Maréchal. It insists on the necessity of cooperation between these disparate social classes, emphasising their shared purpose and humanity. Renoir imbues the film with a broad, generous view of what happens to human beings when they are changing, and the world is changing around them despite their best intentions to prevent it from doing so. Most importantly, the film’s message is that there is an innate goodness within man that allows us to act with decency and respect with all peoples. This, suggests Renoir, is something that has always transcended national boundaries and political divisions.