The Grand Illusion
Leading up to the start of WWII, France and Germany were at war, in what was known as “The Phone War.” The film, The Grand Illusion (1937), which is often heralded as one of the greatest films of all time, attempts to present this historical event and address the socioeconomic trends in European society at that time and how this war initiated them to change. The occupation of Paris signaled that all of France would soon be occupied and that any efforts to resist Germany would have to be conducted in French territories off of the European continent using the navy and whatever other forces were available. However, the lack of will on the part of the French government meant that this would not happen under the current regime. There were multiple steps that could have been taken by the French government that may have prevented the Germans from attacking all together. Whatever one’s position on this argument, it doesn’t change the fact that Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 lead to the end of “The Phone War” and the initial start of WWII in Europe.
The relationship between de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein directly confronts the illusion of aristocracy verses the reality that is national culture. Renoir on the other hand represents the decline of Aristocracy, as he is well aware there is an emerging social order represented by the war that makes aristocracy and the ideals to which de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein remain devout. This can be seen in how Renoir feels that class and national politics are no longer relevant to one another but the other two men see the duty to serve in their nation’s army as their obligation as aristocrats. The conflict concerning social class arises in the opening scene when the similarities in social class shared between de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein is mad relevant to the audience through their conversation. The two men go back and forth between English, French, and German as not to let the common folk realize they are talking about them, and it is revealed that the two men travel within the same social circle as they mention familiar names of friends.
The ultimate irony of this conflict can be seen in the end when Renoir turns out to be correct in his views that the emerging social structure has made the old code followed by these opposing heroes null and void, when Boeldieu gives von Rauffenstein no choice but kill him in sacrifice for his escaped comrades. The relationship shared between the two men comes to its climactic end when after Boieldieu buys time for Marechal and Rosenthol to escape he and von Rauffenstein speak in English, a private conversation only the two of them can understand. Von Rauffenstein says, “I beg you, man to man, come back!” and BOIELDIEU responds “It’s impossible.” This moment reveals and finalizes the true nature of the relationship they shared.
The complexity involved in Rosenthol’s character is very telling because he represents the new age of elitism ushering in to take the place of the old French Aristocracy. There is a scene where the prisoners are shown within the compound drilling and an old woman outside the compound sees them and then says to herself “Poor boys.” Immediately the camera cuts to the officers within the compound who are preparing to put on a play by designing costumes. This dynamic of power is separating the officers, from civilians and civilians from those French and Jewish soldiers captured in the camp is most apparently relevant in the simple free or regulated actions of the individuals. Boildieu looks upon this incident and states “On one side children playing as soldiers, and the on the other, soldiers playing as children.” In the context of this phrase the word ‘children’ is used as a derogatory word he refers to the captives as children because he views them as too beneath him to be men, but also refers his own soldiers as behaving like children because with their privilege and higher class rank they behave childishly. These images reveal the true nature of the social fabric which all of the men are interwoven within and Rosenthol further reveals its complexities when he points out how many members of the French aristocracy very rarely own land anymore, whereas his family owns three castles. Identifying Rosenthol, a Jew, as a representative of the new wave rich class pushing out the old French aristocracy is one of the key themes of the film and it’s used to close the scene. Once Rosnethol reveals he is wealthy, the relationship he shares with Marechal become evermore significant because while they are both from different economic classes, they sympathize with one another more so than they do with Boeldieu who better relates to von Rauffenstein due to their affiliation with the aristocracies of their nations.
Marechal’s character is representative of the poor gentile group. In contrast with both Boeldieu who represents nobility and then his relationship with Rosenthol which represents the contrast between a Jew and Gentile, Marechal is able to transcend along with his comrades beyond this simple identifier. In terms of the sense of duty and nationalism that Boeldieu maintains, Marechal demonstrates it as well first when he incites the German play “It’s a Long Long Way to Tipperary” to be interrupted by a group rendition of the French national anthem, and then when he valiantly endures consolatory confinement for this very outburst of national pride. During the escape scene, Marechal honorably offers an English officer information about the escape plan, but the officer is unable to decipher the information he has been given, which demonstrates a class distinction within the language barriers of the two men.
In their publication Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory, Jan E. Stets and Peter J. Burke elaborate on many of the stages that these characters go through during the course of the film in developing identity. In the film closeness varies depending on class, nationality, and place local community and revolves around the fact that as relationships develop, they dive deeper into more personal matters which expose vulnerabilities and require trust, and this is not much different from how these relationships are developed within the author’s publication. The author’s note that, ‘in social identity theory and identity theory, the self is reflexive in that it can take itself as an object and can categorize, classify, or name itself in particular ways in relation to other social categories or classifications (Stets & Burke, p225).” Essentially the conflict Boeldieu faced and what ultimately led to his death was a conflict between these two identities of self. On one hand he felt social comfortable within his aristocratic culture which is revealed early on in the film to transcend nationalism, but on the other hand he felt ideologically obligated to remain patriotic to his nation. The ironic aspect of this conflict is as Stets & Burke put it the self is basically being objectified and the actions of the individual are based on their understanding of self which is dictated by the differing ways they respond to their community and vice versa. In the end, Boeldieu is both confined to be incapable of relating to his comrades and at the same time having no choice but to sacrifice himself for them.
In sum, The Grand Illusion is a film that addresses the conflict between one’s national culture and their understanding of identity. For Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein it resulted in the ultimate realization that the entitlement they shared within the shelter of their aristocratic status was all an illusion. The war between Germany and France brought about new era in social structure and these two men represent the last of a dying breed within the class system of the olf regime. Likewise, Marechal and Rosenthol demonstrate the new class system and how Jews Gentiles and the wealthy and the poor have more in common with one another than do commoners and aristocrats. And yet, despite the gap of understanding between Boeldie and the other inmates, he is still willing to sacrifice his life and friendship with Rauffenstein (which represents his place in the aristocratic circle) for his nation.