While at a screening of La Grande Illusion, a professor pointed out that this film came closest to Renoir’s intention to showcase man’s humanity to man even in trying times. This had come from Renoir’s own writings. When the professor pointed that point out, it stuck with me throughout the whole viewing of the film. Renoir was right. At every turn, every man is humble and kind to each other, despite what side they are on. I think this is what makes La Grande Illusion such a beautiful film.
The film centers around a French soldier during World War I. He is shot down with his superior over enemy territory and is taken prisoner. The person who shot him down treats them to a nice meal full of drinking. He is taken to a POW camp and decides to break out with his other prisoner mates. Although they don’t receive very good food and are watched frequently by the German soldiers, it doesn’t seem to be such a bad place. But as one person in the group says a golf course is made for golf, a tennis court is made for tennis and a prison camp is made for escaping. They work on building a tunnel and are almost finished when everyone who worked on it are sent to other prison camps. Several months or years pass and we pick up with our hero and his superior again in a fortified castle. They are there because they have tried to escape one too many times. And the man who is put in charge of the castle is the man who shot them down. But it doesn’t seem to be the same exact man. Yes the physical resemblance is there with his neck brace and bald head, but he seems weary and broken. The hero and his superior plot another escape attempt. This time it involves only one other person. The hero and the other person choose to escape and the superior chooses to stay behind and distract the soldiers. They pull it off to the expense of the superior’s life. Now they must cover two hundred miles of enemy territory at night in order to cross over to Switzerland.
What is so great about this film is its sense of humor. These men have been hardened by a battle does not always seem their own and yet they are able to make jokes and laugh at small aspects of their lives. This is how they stay sane, how they don’t go crazy from not being able to see their families or to face their fate. This sense of humor does not take away from the impact of their situation. It just helps make it a little bit more human. In real life you have moments of comedy even in the depths of drama or hardship. It is hard for to me to respond the way I did to this film to the films about the Second World War, especially ones that deal with the Holocaust. People find it insensitive to make any sort of light of such a devastating situation, but I know that there has got to be humor somewhere within the stories of the survivors and the people who died. It is our need to always be politically correct and respectful of death that leads us to be so boring. When Tarantino made Inglourious Basterds, there was a wave backlash because he made light of a very serious situation. And yet I think that Tarantino captured the oppressed will to rebel so completely that this film might have been the truest film to the legacy of the Second World War. No doubt Tarantino channeled Renoir when coming up with his film. I think more creators of Holocaust pictures could revitalize the genre by doing the same.