The "grand illusion" of Jean Renoir's great film referred originally to the British author Norman Angell's belief that the supposed financial advantage of war is a falsehood. For Renoir this illusion evolves into something more complex and various, and so does its tragic and ironic grandeur. The idea that wars can be fought according to gentlemanly rules is an illusion – like the belief that the 1914-1918 conflict was the war to end all wars. Eric Von Stroheim is Captain Von Rauffenstein, a German PoW camp commander in the first world war, ramrod-straight in a uniform with white gloves that conceal horrendous burns from when he was shot down in combat. He pursues an elaborately civilised policy of martial respect for his distinguished prisoner Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay). But he's disdainful of Boeldieu's more plebeian comrades Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) – petty antisemitism is never far away – and the boisterous Maréchal, played with luminous masculinity by Jean Gabin. A vividly humanist, anti-war classic.
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