The First Foreign Language Film to Be Nominated
for Best Picture
I’m a pacifist.
Being against every war comes easily for me. Doing something about it, though, is a challenge.
All I’ve come up with, I’m embarrassed to say, is that I vow to never participate in a war. French director Jean Renoir devised a more interesting anti-war device. And he presented it in his hit drama “La Grande Illusion.” It was France’s top box office hit of 1937 and it might have changed French history for the better.
“La Grande Illusion” is the opposite of “1917.” It has no battle scenes, no bad guys, and no blood. “La Grande Illusion” is hardly a war movie at all; it’s a peace movie that celebrates all the best attributes of humanity.
The story begins with a pair of WWI French officers being taken captive behind German lines. From the very start, the Germans treat the two men with hospitality and respect.
The officers are a bit of an odd couple. Captain de Boeldieu is a confident, gentile aristocrat. Lieutenant Maréchal is a beefy working-class tough guy. They don’t have a thing in common, but they respect each other.
Captain de Boeldieu does find a good friend at the POW camp, though: it’s German Captain Von Rauffenstein. War would have them be enemies, but they never see it that way. They are cosmopolitan, erudite, and trilingual. The two captains drink together and happily converse in French, German, and English.
Rations are tight at the prison camp. However, de Boeldieu and Maréchal are fortunate to share a room with Lieutenant Rosenthal. Rosenthal represents the nouveau riche. His family sends him decadent care packages and he is delighted to share the bounty with his cellmates.
Maréchal has every reason to be suspicious and jealous of this barely-French Jew, but the two men become best buddies and work to escape together.
“La Grande Illusion” can be read as an elegy for the Age of Aristocracy in Europe. De Boeldieu is noble in every sense of the word. A sensible country would want to be ruled by men like him.
But, truth be told, every single character – French and German – is civil and decent. It is possible that this mega-hit film inspired the French to quickly submit to German invasion a few years later without much of a fight.
For Christian French people, the German occupation was relatively non-violent. By promptly surrendering, France spared itself the unimaginable bloody horror that most of Europe suffered through.
Jean Renoir’s elegant argument is that the antidote to war is love: loving your fellow man and loving your enemy more than you love your country.
I think we should give Renoir’s love protest a try. Early next year, the Joint Chiefs of Staff will be eagerly presenting countries to President Biden that they want to bomb and/or invade. Iran, Russia, North Korea, Azerbaijan … the military establishment is hungry for a fun new war.
Let’s risk being called “traitors” and protest the next war with love. Let’s say proudly that we love Persians, we love Russians, we love Koreans, and we love Azerbaijanis – even though we don’t know all that much about them.
To be fair, Renoir’s love defense probably will not work. Even Renoir says so in the final act. Maréchal and Rosenthal are on the run for the Swiss border. “May this war end soon,” Maréchal muses, “and may there never be another one.” “That’s an illusion,” Rosenthal mutters.
Three years later, the actor who played Rosenthal was desperately fleeing Nazi Europe with a forged passport.