Citizen of both the US (naturalised 1946) and France and active as filmmaker in both countries. One of the most influential and important filmmakers of the century. Born in Paris 1894, second son of the famous painter Auguste Renoir (sometimes appears in his father's paintings as red-haired little boy). Graduated with a degree in mathematics and philosophy from University of Aix-en-Provence in 1913. Enlisted in the cavalry in 1913 as ordinary soldier. When war broke out promoted to 2nd lieutenant and saw frontline duty in 1915 with Chasseurs Alpins in Alsace (where he was to shoot the film later). Wounded in 1915, shot in hip by a sniper, came close to having leg amputated, and walked with limp for the rest of his life. In 1916 transferred to the French Flying Corps, served first as observer in a bomber squadron then became a pilot, injured in crash landing, saved from being shot down by intervention of French ace Pinsard. JR served in two of the most romantic and chivalric branches of the armed services - cavalry and air force.

Demobilised in 1918 and begins career as artist making pottery and ceramics for 4 years. After seeing a film by Erich von Stroheim JR decides to become a filmmaker. Decade from 1930-40 period of his greatest creativity and best films including "Madame Bovary" (1934), "The Great Illusion" (1937), "La Marseillaise" (1938), "La règle du jeu" (1939, banned by French government as demoralising). When WW2 breaks out JR joins the Service Cinématographique de l'Armée as a lieutenant. Decides to leave France to pursue career in America, works for 20th Century Fox and then Universal. Returns to Paris in 1951 and works in France during 1950s. Returns to US again during 1960s. Died in Beverly Hills 1979.


Meaning of the Title

Original title of film was "The Escapes of Cpt Maréchal." Later change to more mysterious "The Great Illusion". See the list of "illusions" in "Things to Note". Perhaps war is the greatest illusion of them all.


  • Jean Gabin - the working class flyer Maréchal
  • Pierre Fresnay - the aristocratic French Captain de Boïeldieu
  • Erich von Stroheim - the aristocratic Prussian officer von Rauffenstein
  • Dita Parlo - the German farmer and widow Elsa
  • Marcel Dalio - the wealthy French Jew Rosenthal

Set in 1916 during the Battle of Verdun (references to the taking and re-taking of the fortress of Douaumont - first taken by Germans on February 1916). Jean Renoir:

In 1914, man's spirit had not yet been falsified by totalitarian religions and racism. In some respects the world war was still a war of respectable people, of well-bred people. I almost dare say, of gentlemen. That does not excuse it. Good manners, even chivalry, do not excuse a massacre. (Quoted in Alexander Sesonske, Jean Renoir: The French Films, 1924-1939 (Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 282.)

Based on a combination of JR's own wartime experiences and escape stories of another French pilot Pinsard who escaped 7 times from German prison camps. JR also interviewed members of the League of Escaped War Prisoners to complete script and ensure authenticity. The fact that Jean Gabin (who plays Maréchal) wore JR's own air force uniform from the war shows how much this film is tied to JR's personal experience of war. Filmed in Alsace (where he was wounded in 1915) in early 1937, used army barracks at Colmar, the château at Haut-Koenigsburg, and extras from the French and German armies. JR could not film in Germany in 1937 so used Alsace, which had been under German control since 1870, with its German barracks and forts. Originally planned to have many action scenes of flying but JR could not raise enough money. Film then focused on personal relationships between POWs and their German captors. Erich von Stroheim, who had played Prussian officers in films before, largely created the Rauffenstein character with neck brace, white gloves, tending geranium in the pot. By 1937 JR had become a confirmed pacifist, but also an opponent of Nazism. Warned of inevitable war between democracies and Fascist regimes. Critic Sesonske describes the ambiguity of film:

The terrible ambiguity of war, which arouses both the worst and the best in men and engenders both the greatest hate and the deepest love, underlies the ambiguity that runs through "La Grande Illusion." (Sesonske, p. 293).

Film first shown at the Venice film festival and under pressure from Goebbels, Mussolini refused to let it win main prize, the Mussolini Cup, although he personally liked it. Goebbels considered it to be the "cinematographic enemy number one" because of its pacifist theme and anti-heoric sentiments. The German version of the film was highly censored, with all the favourable references to the Jew Rosenthal deleted. Film was banned in Italy and Belgium, although Mussolini kept a private copy to show his officers. President Roosevelt liked the film and urged that "all democrats should see this film." Original print lost during WW2. Restored in 1958 after American Army found a copy in Munich.

The working class flyer, Maréchal, is shot down over Germany and after attending the German pilots' celebration presided over by Rauffenstein M is taken to a POW camp. After repeatedly attempting to escape he is taken to a high security prison in a castle, Wintersborn. Here he meets the aristocratic Frenchman Boeldieu - "Bois le dieu" or "god of the woods", the god of love who plays the pipes, represents freedom from the restraints of convention. Maréchal finds out that the commandant of the camp is the aristocratic Raffenstein. M plans another escape with the wealthy Jew Rosenthal with the unexpected aid of B, who distracts the German soldiers while M and Ros. escape. M and Ros. travel across Germany under very difficult wintry conditions before meeting a German woman, Elsa, in a farmhouse near the Swiss border. M and E fall in love while M and Ros. stay with her over Christmas. M and Ros. regain their strength and then escape to Switzerland.

Although Renoir claimed in 1938 that "I made La Grande Illusion because I am a pacifist", the film historian and critic Sesonke asks himself what kind of war film or pacifist film "The Great Illusion" could be without any combat or battle scenes?

The war lurks there somewhere, of course; almost every frame acknowledges its extistence. And yet... no trenches, no mud, no exploding shells. Idle heroes and no villains... Indeed as the film unfolds the war seems only to provide a background that recedes physically ever further from the scene... The protagonists, who begin as combatants, are reduced - or elevated - to being mere men. Still, on another, deeper plane the film reverses this movement; the war grows ever closer until the final scene thrusts it to the foreground again, calling the whole hopeful development of the film into question. (p. 287)


Screenplay of "La Grande Illusion" in Masterworks of the French Cinema, ed. John Weightman (London: Faber and Faber, 1988).

Alexander Sesonke, Jean Renoir: The French Films, 1924-1939 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 286-89.

Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974). "33. La Grande Illusion," pp. 147-57.


  • JR's plea for the unity of all Frenchmen across the divisions of class and religion in the face of the threat of the inevitable war against fascism. Note the relationship between M (working class) and the other officers from middle or upper class backgounds. Also the cooperation between M and the Jew R (in spite of their argument on the road) and R's generosity to his less well off companions.
  • JR also sees other bonds which bring people together in spite of national and other differences. Boeldieu and Raffenstein have much more in common with each other (they are old fashioned professional soldiers from an aristocratic background, they both speak English, go to the races, and frequented high society restaurants in Paris, etc) than national difference would suggest. Other ties which cut across national differences are the relations between Jew and Christian, German and French, man and women, child and adults.
  • The use of language (French, German, English, Russian) to suggest connections between people (B and Rauf. are joined by class and their command of English) as well as lack of communication (M tries to tell the English of their tunnel but cannot communicate).
  • The idea of "duty" - B and Rauf. agree that "duty is duty" (as does a German soldier to Elsa).
  • The brief glimpse of propaganda posters on a wall in the POW camp ("Der Feind" - The Enemy)
  • The meaning of some of the symbols used by JR in the film:
    • the white gloves of B and Rauffenstein (aristocracy, older more chivalric method of fighting, B's has a stain he cannot remove)
    • the geranium in the pot tended by Rauf. (it alone grows where nothing else will, Rauf. forced to cut it when he is forced to shoot B)
    • the crosses (the Red Cross, the Iron Cross medal, the crucifix when B dies)
    • the image of windows (JR shows separation and disunity by shooting through windows or characters next to windows).
    • musical instruments - pipes heard at parade in camp square whene B says he hates the sound of pipes. M given harmonica by German guard when in solitary. B plays flute to help M and Ros. escape. Flutes also used to cause disruption to mask their escape.
    • R's neck brace like a piece of medieval armour.
  • The meaning of the "great illusion" of the title? A number of things suggest themselves:
    • Perhaps war itself ("this whore of a war") as a method of solving problems
    • nationalism and national barriers (M and R near the Swiss border observe "frontiers are an invention... nature doesn't give a hoot")
    • comradeship in war - the original ending of the film was to have all the French POWs agree to meet in Maxime's restaurant in Paris after the war, but no one would show up
    • the common idea of 1914 that this would be a short war (over in 2 months) or would be "the war to end all wars"
    • the illusion that POWs could escape
    • that progress can be made in war (the town of Douaumont is taken and retaken many times)
    • the illusion of the theatrical performance in POW camp put on to escape the boredom of camp life
    • the illusion of sexuality - a soldier dressing up in women's clothes momentarily confuses some soldiers who think he is a real woman; other examples of illusory play acting - Boeldieu under spot lights plays a flute on the castle walls to divert the attention of the German soldiers, B also observes that "on one side children who play at soldiers (observing the young German recruits), on the other soldiers who play children (the French soldiers dressing up as women)"
    • the illusion of the Russian soldiers that the Empress really was concerned with their welfare (she sends them books on algebra and cooking but no food)
    • the illusion of the "old order" of Europe that it could survive a war like WW1 - the traditional monarchical and aristocratic régimes of Germany, Austria and Russia were brought to an end by the war, the chivalry of aristocratic professional soldiers like Boeldieu and Raffenstein had no place in the mass warfare made possible by the industrial revolution and democracy
    • the illusion of order in the camp - a German officer proudly announces everything is in order just before civil disobedience by the POWs breaks out (flute playing).
  • The things which are NOT illusions:
    • Maréchal and Rosenthal do manage to escape
    • M is able to overcome his anti-semtism towards R
    • M is able to overcome the national and linguistic barriers between himself and Elsa
    • B and Rauf. remain polite and courteous to each other in spite of being enemies
    • the self-sacfrice of the aristocratic Boeldieu who dies so that the working class M and the Jew R can escape (B's last chivalric act and the last of his entire class?)
    • there are small examples of humanity between the German guards and the French prisoners - a guard gives a harmonica to M who is very lonely in his cell
    • the aristocrats B and Rauf. are under no illusion about the fate of their class and the values they believe in.