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The Grand Illusion

With kind permission from my editor at Word on Fire, we are pleased to reproduce here a chapter from my new book, Popcorn with the Pope: A Guide to the Vatican Film List, co-authored by David Paul Baird and Fr. Michael Ward. I chose eleven of the forty-five films on the List to write about for the book, which is an introduction not only to the films themselves, but to the Catholic Church’s engagement with cinema as an art form. Each chapter consists of a short summary of the film, a commentary situating the film in the context of Christian faith and life, a list of a few pertinent quotes from the film, facts about the film for sidebars, and a set of discussion questions for use by individuals and groups.


As you can read in more detail in the introduction to Popcorn with the Pope, the Vatican Film List appeared in 1995 with little notice, published by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and labelled “Some Important Films,” with no explanation for how or why the particular films were selected. Significantly, the majority of the films are continental European productions – mostly in foreign languages, with a few silent films too. Several other English-language films are either set in continental Europe or deal with topics pertinent to Europe and Christianity. As I hope you will see, the chapter I share here has particular relevance for our project at the Spe Salvi Institute. Many of my other chapters, along with many of the chapters authored by my collaborators, are equally important to us who are interested in the spiritual heritage of Europe.


Please consider ordering a copy of the Popcorn with the Pope here, or wherever you buy your books.





The Grand Illusion (1937)





A World War I drama about French officers in German prison camps, which contrasts the senselessness of war with the unlikely blessings that develop among people in difficult circumstances.





Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion centers on a group of French officers imprisoned in two different camps at the height of the Great War, now called World War I, which promised at the time to be “the war to end all wars.” Exploring class, religion, and nationality, the film highlights how needless much modern warfare is, and proposes that Europeans– and by extension, people all over the world – have much more in common than what divides them.


From the opening scenes of the film, Renoir, himself a veteran, impresses upon the audience that no one involved in the Great War really wanted to fight, and least of all the gentlemen leaders on each national side who had more in common with one another than with many of their own countrymen. The working-class Lieutenant Maréchal (played by “France’s everyman,” Jean Gabin), is shot down during a reconnaissance mission with the high-born Captain de Boëldieu (Pierre Fresnay); but after receiving medical attention, the two men are invited to dine with their German counterparts, led by Captain – later Major – von Rauffenstein, played by the inimitable Austro-American actor Erich von Stroheim. The Germans warmly welcome their French prisoners as lunch guests, and as Rauffenstein and Boëldieu discuss the goings-on of their mutual friends in high society, one of the German officers cuts the meat for Maréchal, whose arm is in a sling. On both sides, violence is an unfortunate matter of duty that disturbs the normal, more desirable state of camaraderie.


Soon Maréchal and Boëldieu are sent to an officers’ prison camp, where they join a lively community that cuts across the usual worldly distinctions. Early on in their confinement, Boëldieu washes the feet of the still-injured Maréchal – a gesture of solidarity and an example of sacrificial love taken directly from Christ’s ministry to his apostles in the Upper Room. Also in the camp is Lieutenant Rosenthal, a rich Jewish soldier who receives lavish care packages from home and shares the contents with the other prisoners. Another man, Cartier, is a larger-than-life former Vaudevillian who organizes entertainment options that are as enjoyable for the German guards to watch as for the inmates to perform. When word comes through of a French victory, Maréchal leads the men in singing “La Marseillaise” – an act that requires the Germans to punish him with solitary confinement. When Maréchal laments his loneliness behind bars, the German guard shows him compassion just as if he were a family member or friend. The French soldiers make it almost a game to dig a tunnel under the camp, and Boëldieu states it plainly, “A golf course is for golf. A tennis court is for tennis. A prison camp is for escaping.” Ironically, the war outside the walls is utterly barbaric and unnatural, while life inside the prison possesses a semblance of civility ordered towards the common good. Why, one wonders, cannot such peace and fraternity simply replace the gore and strife of the trenches?


Just as the rag-tag group of French officers finish digging their tunnel and hatch an escape plan, they are split up and shipped off to different prisons, with Maréchal, Boëldieu, and Rosenthal ending up together at Wintersborn, presided over by Rauffenstein, now seriously disabled after a plane crash. The Frenchmen are warned that escape from Wintersborn is impossible, but they begin planning their exit anyway. Rauffenstein’s quarters are in the chapel of an old castle, where an enormous crucifix hangs suspended overhead, representing suffering and death, but suffering and death in which God Himself, in the person of His Son, participates. Bored of patriotic duty and disconnected from the urbane existence he once enjoyed, Rauffenstein now must wear a constricting neck brace and cover his burns with gloves. He tends to a geranium so as not to forget the beauty of life, and in one of the most memorable scenes in the film, invites Boëldieu for an intimate, gentlemanly chat. The men agree that the world has changed – the privilege of their class has come to an end, but they wonder what will follow next in the long wake of the French Revolution. Back with the other inmates, Boëldieu humorously remarks that one of the consequences of egalitarian trends is that the poor will soon suffer from rich men’s diseases like gout.


When the Frenchmen finally make their escape attempt, Boëldieu parades around the camp playing a flute, creating a distraction so that Maréchal and Rosenthal can make their getaway. Again, in Christ-like fashion, Boëldieu lays aside his privilege and sacrifices himself for his friends, as Rauffenstein tries to reason with him in the dignified, neutral language of English before being forced to shoot. In perhaps the tenderest scene in the film, Boëldieu receives Last Rites from a German priest and offers Rauffenstein a bleak word of farewell, and a reminder of the sacrifice required of people placed in positions of honor and power. “I am not the one to be pitied…You’ll have to carry on,” Boëldieu mutters before continuing, “For a commoner, dying in war is a tragedy. But for you and me, it’s a good way out.”


The final sequence of the film depicts Maréchal and Rosenthal on the run, finally taking refuge in the home of a young German war widow, Elsa, who is happy to receive them as a respite from her own loneliness. Elsa’s home is full of domestic comforts like glasses of milk, loaves of bread, a hot stove, beds, and prominent Catholic symbols including a statue of Our Lady, a crucifix, and a prayer desk. But Elsa also points out the portrait of her husband, killed at Verdun, and other family members killed at Liège, Charleroi, and Tannenberg, which she ironically describes as “our biggest victories.”


Elsa and Maréchal do not speak the same language, but they make an immediate connection that develops into romance, even though they both know it cannot last. Rosenthal’s injured leg heals over several days as he plays with Elsa’s young daughter, Lotte, before they celebrate Christmas. In stark contrast to Rauffenstein’s enormous crucifix in a cold and almost lifeless prison, Elsa’s warm living room contains a crèche scene that includes a baby Jesus made from a potato, which (appropriately for Catholics) Lotte wants to eat. It is a celebration of an intimate, incarnational, and joyous faith, which even has a place of honor for Rosenthal, who half-jokingly mentions that Jesus’s family may have been his distant ancestors. When it is finally time for the men to leave Elsa’s farm, they look out on the landscape and ponder the unnaturalness of human greed and conflict. Once Maréchal and Rosenthal step over the invisible border into Switzerland, the German soldiers pursuing them are relieved to stop their hunt and put away their weapons. Again, no one really wants to fight this war.


In the final scene, Maréchal declares, “We’ve got to end this damn war and make it the last!” Rosenthal replies, “What an illusion!” Sadly, Europe was pitched into a new war just two years after Renoir’s film came out, making the “Great War” the first of two great bloodbaths. After World War II, the nations of Europe tried again to make a lasting peace a reality rather than an illusion. Christian statesmen like Konrad Adenauer in Germany and Charles de Gaulle in France focused on Europe’s common Christian identity, while making arrangements to bind different nations’ economies and governments closer together so that future violence would become unlikely if not impossible.


The commercial and political unions have largely succeeded in keeping the peace in western Europe, but a renewal of the Christian identity that once characterized “Christendom” has largely failed. Instead, the new grand illusion these days is of progress towards worldly utopia. Nonetheless, the reality of human sin and brokenness persists, and opportunities for an other-worldly peace of God, which passes all understanding, remains deep in the hearts of most people. The guiding Christian principles of “old” Europe, therefore, may still be the answer to today’s problems. As Pope Pius XI said to the German people the same year Renoir’s film was released, “charity is the apostle’s indispensable weapon, in a world torn by hatred.” Accordingly, one of the biggest lessons of The Grand Illusion is that no matter what statesmen and generals may do, everyone can cherish the gift of virtuous human interaction when it comes, even in the darkest depths.





“A golf course is for golf. A tennis court is for tennis. A prison camp is for escaping.”


“May the earth lie lightly upon our valiant enemy.”


“Out there, children play soldier. In here, soldiers play like children.”



Sidebars / Tidbits


Director Jean Renoir was the son of the French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and a subjects of the painting, Gabrielle Renard and infant son, Jean (1895-1896).


When the Nazis invaded France in 1942, Joseph Goebbels confiscated the print of this film and referred to Renoir as “Cinematic Public Enemy Number One.”


Grand Illusion was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award in 1938, the first foreign language film nominated in that category.



Discussion Questions


1.     World War I was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” Are there any grounds for hope for a sustained peace among different peoples and nations?

2.     The film explores relationships between people of very diverse backgrounds. Where have you found common ground with people whose life experiences have differed from yours? What role has your faith played in such relationships?

3.     What do you make of a principled rejection of all warfare? Catholics, for example, are not required to embrace pacifism, but nor are they forbidden from it. Is there anything worth fighting for?


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