The first foreign language film to be nominated for the Best Picture award at the Oscars, 'La Grande Illusion' is a war film that is barely concerned with the practical matters of war or the reasons behind them (we see now actual fighting), but uses war as a reason to look at the changing social orders in the Western world at the time. The First World War was that watershed moment in which the relationships between the social orders; the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat was ever shifting and resisting the natural order of things. After the war, the position of the working classes in the countries most involved; France, United Kingdom and Germany was better than ever before; greater chances of employment, voting rights and so on, which mirrored the relative decline of the aristocracy who had been surpassed as a political and economic force byb the more dynamic middle classes.
Renoir highlights the class differences amongst the ranks of the French army, with two soldiers, the working class Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the aristocratic de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) captured on a spying mission by the Germans. There are also minorities; black soldiers and Jews, notably Rosenthal, from a nouveau-riche family (the one social class really on the move), yet de Boeldieu seems unable to interact with his social inferiors. Despite being a prisoner, he also rebukes the manners of his German captors. However, the class issue is explored more deeply within the relationship between de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), with Renoir suggesting that class loyalties transcend national loyalties. These are two men with very much in common; shared acquaintances, shared codes of ethics and behaviour, they speak to each other in English so other soldiers cannot understand the conversation etc, and who would very much be likely to be friends in other circumstances. What's very evident is the solidarity of the upper classes across national borders.
Both are however aware of the changing world, which is being accelerated by this war. The social orders are in upheaval and they do not belong in the new world that's been constructed. The defining moment in the film which typifies this is the escape that the French have been developing. Knowing that only two of them can escape, de Boeldieu allows Rosenthal and Marechal to do so, leaving him behind, symbolising the shift in the social orders. By causing a distraction, von Rauffenstein is forced to shoot with equal, as unwilling as he is to do so. In a poignant exchange as de Boeldieu is dying, the latter explains "I would have done the same. France or Germany, duty is duty". He also states he should not be pitied because of the two, von Rauffenstein is the one who must live in a world where their education, behaviour and privilege is no longer acknowledged as important.
At this point, Renoir becomes concerned with the growing brotherhood between Rosenthal and Marechal, despite an initial mutual loathing, as if he is denoting that these men offer the hope for the future. As they flee, they are taken in by a German widow. Despite not sharing her language, Marechal falls in love with her, and though they have to return to France (via Switzerland), he promises to return. As they cross the Swiss border, pursued by German soldiers, they refrain from shooting in what is almost a last hurrah to the old world code of ethics.
Throughout 'La Grande Illusion', Renoir uses war as a device to explore class and racial themes. It's an anti-war film in the sense that the French soldiers of the lower classes become disillusioned about being pawns in the games of politicians, and his acceptance of it as a futile exercise, which is reflected in the title which references an essay by Norman Angell, a British historian. However, the prevailing feeling in my mind is biased towards the analysis of race and class; of looking towards a new world. At the time the film was made though, the Second World War was close at hand and Hitler's plans for German expansion were evident. Though this had been a futile war, the war to end all wars no less, history was about to repeat itself. 5/5