During the First World War, two French soldiers are captured and imprisoned in a German P.O.W. camp. Several escape attempts follow until they are sent to a seemingly impenetrable fortress which seems impossible to escape from.
In the midst of the Russian Revolution of 1905, the crew of the battleship Potemkin mutiny against the brutal, tyrannical regime of the vessel's officers. The resulting street demonstration in Odessa brings on a police massacre.
Sergei M. Eisenstein
During 1st WW, two French officers are captured. Captain De Boeldieu is an aristocrat while Lieutenant Marechal was a mechanic in civilian life. They meet other prisoners from various backgrounds, as Rosenthal, son of wealthy Jewish bankers. They are separated from Rosenthal before managing to escape. A few months later, they meet again in a fortress commanded by the aristocrat Van Rauffenstein. De Boeldieu strikes up a friendship with him but Marechal and Rosenthal still want to escape... Written by
From Jean Renoir's autobiography, My Life and My Films (1974):
"If a French farmer should find himself dining at the same table as a French financier, those two Frenchmen would have nothing to say to each other, each being unconcerned with the other's interests. But if a French farmer meets a Chinese farmer they will find any amount to talk about. This theme of the bringing together of men through their callings and common interests has haunted me all my life and does so still. It is the theme of 'La Grande Illusion' and it is present, more or less, in all my works."
In a sense, 'La Grande Illusion' is a counterpoint in an argument of stories: in one corner, Jean Renoir & friends singing about humor and good cheer; in the other, a handful of Germans demanding bigotry and murderous pride.
My opinion of the movie is quite high, but I think, from having read that book and a few others, that the real accomplishments in 'Illusion,' artistic and thematic, come directly from Renoir's deep affection of people and our loves.
To live your life with love and humor takes thoughtful delicacy. It's much easier to close your heart, fence yourself in, and never have a true friend in your life: and such closed-hearted people are inevitably the ones who coolly turn the political screws until the world bursts into famine and war.
It was too much to think that 'La Grande Illusion' would prevent the then coming war, as Renoir hoped. But to look at the story again, as a lyrical anti-fascist statement and a call to weigh friendship and good company over nationalism (of any sort), that I think is where the story gets really good.
The modern era continues to give us a real choice. We can kill, without effort, to subdue the stranger. Or we can join the stranger for a meal and a conversation, and become friends. Which of these is the true vision of the world's "leaders"? Cold hearts, cold future.
Something to think about as you watch the movie.
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