Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion is, of course, up there with films like Citizen Kane, M, The Godfather, Third Man, and so on. Though made only two years before Germany launched the Second World War, it's about the First World War and mostly set in a German prisoner-of-war camp. The film stars the great Austrian-American director/actor Erich von Stroheim, who plays a German aristocrat, Rittmeister von Rauffenstein, who bonds with one of the camp's prisoners, a French aristocrat named Captain de Boëldieu (Pierre Fresnay). Other French prisoners come from the top of its society—Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), the son of a rich Jewish retailer. Others from the bottom—Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is a working-class mechanic.
Now the question that's often asked about this anti-war classic concerns its title. What exactly is the grand illusion?
Is it the presentation of bogus aristocratic fellowship? Is it that the war to end all wars turned out to be not that because Hitler's Germany plunged the world into an even more destructive world (European-centered) war? Is it a comment about the ontology (or hauntology) of cinema? Or the art of filmmaking? Is it the biggest illusion of all? Certainly the theater that's screening this film this weekend sides with this explanation. The Grand Illusion nightly presents all manner of grand illusions.
So what is it? I don't think it's any of these. The answer is instead found in the war itself. The grand illusion is to think of the war as immemorial, inherent, or a part of human nature. The reality is that World War One, like World War Two, was historically determined. Meaning, the wars were specific to capitalism.
What sparked the war in The Grand Illusion was inter-imperialist competition, the escape from saturated markets and the search for new ones, and the rise of Germany as an industrial power. And so all of this butchery was over money, interest rates, loans, and securities in a global context. This is understood very well by the film's aristocrats, which is why they are so out of place in this kind of world. Their kind of wars are long gone. Also, their kinds of wars did not have working-class people conned into conscription by the other side of the coin of democracy, patriotism, a Victorian invention. What on earth is a mechanic doing on the field of battle? How on earth did he afford a rifle and the uniform and training? He is also an officer, by God. Before the massification of war, which involved the massive expansion of government budgets, war, in the European, and also Japanese, context was only for those who could afford to participate in it. The aristocrats.
And so, the grand illusion is that the First World War was a war as old as the hills. No. It was as new (and as capital-intensive) as cinema itself.