Jean Renoir's classic prison escape movie, often seen as a humane and pacifist indictment of war, offers an ambiguous perspective on class differences. In a WWI German prisoner-of-war camp, three French soldiers, working-class Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin), middle-class Jew Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and aristocratic senior officer Captain de Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay), are held prisoner by Commandant Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). The film shows how a bond of sympathy exists more between the German Commandant and the senior French officer than between the three Frenchman of different classes. Even though de Boieldieu sacrifices himself for the two others to escape, the film makes no attempt to conceal what they are returning to once their role as war heroes is over.
It's long been one of the revered classics of international cinema, but there is no fine layer of dust over La Grande Illusion. Jean Renoir's film is just as vibrant, exciting and wise as it has ever been. The story is set during World War I, mostly in a couple of German POW camps, where two very different French prisoners plot to escape: the working-class officer Maréchal (Jean Gabin, the French Spencer Tracy) and the upper-class de Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay). The suspenseful backbone of the story is formed by these escape attempts, but Renoir is primarily concerned with the way people treat each other, and especially with how class and nationality inform human relations. Most compelling of all the film's characters is the aristocratic German officer von Rauffenstein, unforgettably incarnated by stiff-backed Erich von Stroheim; although he runs a prison camp, von Rauffenstein cannot help but strike up a friendship with de Boieldieu, a kindred spirit from the doomed nobility. There is nothing dewy or naive about Renoir's vision (and two years after the release of this antiwar film, Europe was plunged into another world war), yet La Grande Illusion is one of those movies that makes you feel good about such long-outmoded ideas as sacrifice and brotherhood. After it won a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1937, the Nazis declared the film "Cinematographic Enemy Number One". There can be no higher praise.