One of the odder aspects of Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion is its use of honor. One side is very respectful to the other, even if that side is nothing but disrespectful. The odd thing is that the villains are the respectful side and our hero is disrespectful!
It’s hard to imagine why Renoir would make the villains so understanding and the main hero arrogant. One possible reason for this is that it reverses the expected roles in a film. In a conventional film, the Germans would be blood-thirsty madmen who abused the French at all turns. In this conventional film, the hero would be understanding of all viewpoints, religions, and opinions.
The German war generals are ostensibly the villains of the film. They hold the French soldiers captive in a POW camp. The only death in the film is at the hands of a German officer. In addition, Germany was starting trouble in Europe when the film came out. With this in mind, a conventional film would be an allegory for the warpath that Germany was about to start.
But this is no conventional film. The Germans are some of the nicest “villains” I’ve ever seen in a movie. The only times that they’re not treating the French well is when the French are acting up.
At the start of the film, French soldiers Captain de Boeldieu (played by Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Marechal (played by Jean Gabin) are captured. The first response from Captain von Rauffenstein (played by Erich von Stroheim) when he hears they’re captured is to… invite them to dine with him. In a conventional film, von Rauffenstein would probably threaten them if they act up or at least imply that he would. But no, the feast is an amicable one. In fact, von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu discover that they share a mutual acquaintance and become friends.
At the first camp that de Boeldieu and Marechal are imprisoned at, the German higher-ups treat the prisoners well. They don’t needlessly abuse the POWs. In fact, they let the French prisoners put on a little show. When Marechal learns that Verdun has fallen into French hands, he interrupts the show. This leads to all of the prisoners singing “La Marseillaise” at the top of their lungs. In a conventional film, this would to a violent crackdown by the guards that would leave at least a few of the prisoners dead and the rest injured.
In this film, the only prisoner who’s seen being punished is Marechal. There’s a possibility that the other prisoners were punished too, but since we get no footage of this I won’t entertain the idea. The first scene of Marechal’s solitary confinement begins with a German officer bringing him some food and he tries to comfort him. Marechal responds to this by trying to escape his cell. During his escape attempt, he locks the officer in the cell.
In a conventional picture, it would not be unexpected if Marechal was killed by the guards. But since this isn’t a conventional picture, Marechal is brought back to his cell. He does look battered, but I have a feeling that if a German Lieutenant escaped from his cell in a French POW camp, the same result would occur.
After all this, the prisoners are transferred to other camps until they find themselves in Wintersborn. Wintersborn is run by none other than von Rauffenstein, now a Major and looking like Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. He tells them that Wintersborn is escape-proof. Nonetheless, Marechal and de Boeldieu plan an escape, aided by a new prisoner named Rosenberg (played by Marcel Dalio).
The plan to escape involves the rest of the prisoners making a ruckus while Marechal, de Boeldieu, and Rosenberg escape from the camp. The Germans try to disrupt the plan, but remember: if German soldiers tried to escape from a French camp, the French soldiers would react the same way.
It’s during the escape that the sole fatality of the film occurs when von Rauffenstein shoots de Boeldieu in the stomach. A stomach shot is one of the most painful ways to die and only an evil man would deliberately kill someone this way. Except it wasn’t deliberate: von Rauffenstein was aiming for de Boeldieu’s legs. He only missed them due to the snowy weather obscuring his vision.
von Rauffenstein is devastated by de Boeldieu’s impending death. He is by his side while he lies dying. However, von Rauffenstein shouldn’t feel sorry for killing de Boeldieu. If de Boeldieu was in von Rauffenstein’s position and von Rauffenstein was in his position, de Boeldieu would have done the same exact thing. And that’s not speculation on my part: de Boeldieu bluntly says it.
The POW camp runners aren’t the only Germans who show respect to Marechal and Rosenberg. While on the run, Marechal and Rosenberg hide in a barn that belongs to Elsa (played by Dita Parlo), a German farm women who lost her husband and three of her brothers to French soldiers. With this in mind, it wouldn’t be out of the question to assume that Elsa would get the type of soldiers who orphaned her child thrown back in a camp.
Elsa doesn’t do that. Instead, she harbors them in exchange for them helping around the farm. She even begins to fall in love with Marechal during this time. She doesn’t want him to leave but understands that they most.
Easily the best example wartime honor from the Germans in the film is at the very end of the film. Marechal and Rosenberg are trudging along in the snow, trying to cross into Switzerland like the von Trapp family. While they’re doing this, a German patrol catches sight of them and fires several shots off at them. Their leader stops them before they can fire more because they’ve apparently crossed the border in Swiss territory.
In a conventional film with less three-dimensional villains, the Germans would still try to shot at them. This more conventional film might involve Swiss forces repelling them to protect Marechal and Rosenberg. But since the villains in this film are so three-dimensional that they’re hardly villains, they don’t do this. They respect the rules of the border and don’t want to break it.
This is the most triumphant example of wartime honor from the Germans because of how easy it would be for them to renege on it. Marechal and Rosenberg are only a few feet into Switzerland without anyone else watching them. The Germans could easily shoot them and just not tell anyone that they were shot in Switzerland without anyone being the wiser. But they don’t shoot at them when they cross the border: they let them go. Their sense of honor outweighs their drive to kill all of their enemies. Either that or the leader’s like Hans Landa and doesn’t like to shot people in the back.
While the German side of the war respects their enemy, our designated hero Marechal doesn’t return that favor. Now, to be fair, it’s not outrageous that Marechal is rebelling against the German officers. It wouldn’t be hard to see a German officer acting the same way in a French POW camp. Because of this, I’m not counting disrespectful actions taken against the Germans as evidence of Marechal being disrespectful. What I am counting I his disrespect towards those that help him or are on his side.
While on the run with Rosenberg, Marechal is revealed to be an anti-Semite. He demeans Rosenberg for his faith and even abandons him when he becomes too much of a burden to help. Thankfully for Rosenberg, Marechal isn’t a massive anti-Semite so he comes back to help him to Elsa’s farmhouse.
A more startling example of Marechal’s disrespect comes with Elsa, specifically when he leaves for the border. He promises Elsa that he will return for her and her daughter. However, Marechal has no plans to return to her and will re-enlist at his first opportunity. He has no reason to tell her this; he just does. This is a very shocking betrayal considering how Elsa granted him and Rosenberg shelter while he recovered.
In conclusion, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion has an interesting spin on honor. The villains show their enemies honor and the only person that they kill was an accident. Our hero treats his fellow soldier poorly and betrays the woman who sheltered (and loved) him.