One memorable scene in La Grande Illusion, (1937; dir. Jean Renoir) comes when inmates of a German prison camp are rehearsing for a skit they will perform before other prisoners and German officers. They are trying on costumes they will wear as they portray women dancing and singing on stage. The slightest of them, who plays some sort of ingénue, puts on an attractive dress and blonde wig. When he walks out in front of the other men, they suddenly fall silent, gazing at him in the dress and blonde wig with wistful regret for the women they miss at home, desire, and shame for the desire they feel for another man. The scene is comic but moving, as this slender man in a dress and wig arouses conflicting emotions in his fellow prisoners.
In another scene the commanding officer of the French prisoners of war, Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) talks with the commanding German officer of the prison, Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim). They are friendly acquaintances from past days; they both remember the same prostitute and the same restaurants in Paris. They both feel trapped by circumstance and their class—both are members of a vanishing class of upper class nobility that will pass away along with the end of the war.
The scenes of this film are carefully photographed, full of authentic details, so that if any of them actually are filed on a set, it is impossible to tell. Renoir, the son of the famous painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, composes many scenes as if they are paintings. I especially liked the indoor shots of people in the immediate foreground, set against an open window that reveals another scene outside, in the background. This is more sophisticated cinematography than we are used to in most American films of the 1930s.
La Grande Illusion directly addresses anti-semitism and German hatred of Jews. Although it is set in World War I, it clearly is responding to contemporary events of the late 1930s, including the movement of Nazi Germany to go to war with the rest of the world. Yet this film does not demonize the Germans. Rather it emphasizes the arbitrariness of boundaries between individuals, social classes, and nations.
This must be the archetypal prisoner of war film. Both Stalag 17 (1953; dir. Billy Wilder) and The Great Escape (1963; dir. John Sturges) echo it in different ways. The film Casablanca (1942; dir. Michael Curtiz), with its scene of French patriots breaking into “Le Marseilles” in front of German officers in Rick’s Café, was probably inspired by a similar scene in La Grand Illusion, when French prisoners begin singing the same song in front of German officers when they learn of a French victory over the Germans.