The Great Illusion

The Great Illusion is a French film directed by Jean Renoir released in 1937 .

This film is considered a masterpiece of world cinema 1 , 2 .


During the First World War , Lieutenant Maréchal’s plane and Boëldieu’s captain were shot down by Commander von Rauffenstein, an aristocrat who knew Captain Boëldieu’s family by accident. The two French officers are sent to a camp in Germany. There, they find many French, British, and Russian prisoners of all ranks and from different social backgrounds. Together, the prisoners organize various activities, share their meager resources and live to the rhythm of the news of the French army that takes and successively loses positions on the northern front, especially during the Battle of Douaumont. The chamber, besides Marshal and Boëldieu, also includes Lieutenant Demolder, a lover of letters, Lieutenant Rosenthal, son of a wealthy Jewish family in finance, a cadastral engineer and Cartier, a popular and voluble sergeant. They decide to escape the Lager by digging a tunnel under dangerous conditions. The day before their escape, fate wants them to be transferred to another camp.

The months pass. Marshal and Boëldieu, after various unsuccessful escape attempts, are transferred to an ultimate fortified camp in the mountains, where they are surprised to discover that he is led by von Rauffenstein, now disabled after a serious injury and unfit for active service. They also find, by chance Rosenthal. The two aristocratic officersthey respect each other and fraternize more or less, having in common their environment and education, under the eyes of Marshal the Worker and Rosenthal, the son of a Jewish banker. Pursuing their project of escape, Marshal and Boëldieu set up a refined stratagem to escape, but a certain personal honor vis-à-vis both of von Rauffenstein and Marshal, pushes Boëldieu to sacrifice himself to cover the flight of Marshal and Rosenthal. The escape of the two accomplices succeeded, but Boëldieu was shot down accidentally by von Rauffenstein, forced by the duty to shoot towards the man who had become almost a friend.

In their flight to Switzerland through the German countryside, in the cold and snow, hungry and exhausted, Maréchal and Rosenthal are welcomed in a farmhouse by Elsa, a young woman who raises only her daughter Lotte and leads the farm at best . All the men of Elsa’s family died in the war, in battles that are all great German victories. Rosenthal, wounded, and Marshal decide to spend a few weeks there to regain strength before resuming their way. Marshal falls in love with Elsa, who lives again by the presence of the steps of a man in his house. On Christmas Eve, they spend the night together. On the day of his departure, Marechal, with Rosenthal, resumes his journey towards Switzerland, while promising to return to Elsa after the war, if he still lives. Together,

The initial scenario provided an additional sequence: separating, Maréchal and Rosenthal were meeting in a large Parisian restaurant to celebrate the victory. At the appointed day, the two chairs remained empty, without anyone knowing whether they had renounced to continue to fraternize, peace returned, or whether they had been killed or spared.

Technical sheet

  • Original title: The Great Illusion
  • Director: Jean Renoir
  • Scenario and dialogues: Charles Spaak and Jean Renoir
  • Technical Advisor: Carl Koch
  • Assistant Directors: Jacques Becker and Robert Rips
  • Chief operator: Christian Matras
  • Second operator: Claude Renoir
  • Assistant operator: Jean-Serge Bourgoin and Ernest Bourreaud
  • Sound engineer: Joseph de Bretagne
  • Sets: Eugène Lourié
  • Costumes: René Decrais
  • Script: Françoise Giroud (under the pseudonym Gourdji)
  • Photographer: Sam Levin
  • Editing: Marguerite Renoir (new restoration montage made in 1958 by Renée Lichtig )
  • Music: Joseph Kosma (Smyth Editions)
  • Conductor: Émile Vuillermoz
  • Songs:
    • Frou-Frou by Hector Monréal and Henri Blondeau , music by Henri Chatau , sung by Lucille Panis
    • If you want Marguerite de Vincent Telly and Albert Valsien , played by Julien Carette
  • Poster: Bernard Lancy
  • Production: Frank Rollmer and Albert Pinkévitch
  • Production Manager: Raymond Blondy
  • General Manager: Pierre Blondy
  • Production Company: Cinematic Art Direction (RAC)
  • Distribution companies: RAC, then Cinédis, Filmsonor Gaumont
  • Filming dates: Winter 1936 – 1937
  • Country of origin: France
  • Original languages: French , German , English and Russian
  • Format: black and white – mono – 35 mm (print: Franay Laboratory LTC)
  • Genre: war , drama
  • Duration: 114 minutes (94 minutes for the 1937 version and 107 minutes for the German version)
  • Release dates:
    • France :(first at the Marivaux in Paris ); (first out)
    • Belgium :( Brussels )
    • United States :
  •  CNC classification : all public, arthouse (operating visa o 3971 issued Mar. 20, 1946) 3


  • Jean Gabin : Lieutenant Marshal
  • Dita Parlo : Elsa
  • Marcel Dalio : Lieutenant Rosenthal
  • Pierre Fresnay : captain of Boëldieu
  • Erich von Stroheim : Captain and then Commander von Rauffenstein
  • Julien Carette : Cartier, the actor
  • Georges Péclet : the locksmith
  • Werner Florian : Sergeant Kantz, says Arthur
  • Jean Dasté : the teacher
  • Sylvain Itkine : Lieutenant Demolder, says Pindar
  • Gaston Modot : the cadastre engineer
  • Jacques Becker : the English officer who breaks his watch
  • Habib Benglia : Senegalese
  • Pierre Blondy : a soldier
  • Albert Brouett : a prisoner
  • Roger Forster : New House
  • Georges Fronval : the German soldier firing on Boëldieu’s captain
  • Karl Heil : an officer of the fortress
  • Carl Koch : A Field Constable (von Rauffenstein’s Order)
  • Little Peters : Lotte, Elsa’s granddaughter
  • Claude Sainval : Captain Ringis
  • Michel Salina
  • Claude Vernier : the Prussian officer

Genesis of the film

The film was originally called The Adventures of Lieutenant Maréchal , this character being the only present from beginning to end. The original scenario focused on the relations of Lieutenant Maréchal and Captain Boëldieu.

The title of this film verbatim that of a test of Norman Angell , The Great Illusion , published in France in 1910 and having been a global success 4 . Renoir specified that he had chosen this title “because he did not want to say anything precise” 5 .

The film is inspired by the escapist stories of General Armand Pinsard . Jean Renoir met him during the First World War and the latter saved his life while he was chased by a German plane. The two men lost sight of each other during the war, but met by chance in 1934 during the filming of Toni . Armand Pinsard then recounts his captivity in Germany and his escape to Renoir who is inspired to write a first scenario with Charles Spaak. The project is first called The Escape of Pinsard 6 , 7 .

In 1914 , when starts the First World War , Jean Renoir ‘s sergeant at st regiment of dragoons under the command of Captain Louis Bossut possible model BŒLDIEU captain.


Jean Renoir had a lot of difficulties to finance this film and could find a producer only with the support of Jean Gabin 6 , 7 .

Distribution of roles

Jean Renoir gave the leading roles to three emblematic figures of the time: Pierre Fresnay as a declining aristocrat, Jean Gabin in Parisian titi gouailleur and Erich von Stroheim as a very rigid officer, feature accentuated by his neck brace. The presence of Erich von Stroheim was imposed on Renoir by the production. Renoir then developed a custom character for Erich von Stroheim with Rauffenstein 8 .

Following a misunderstanding with Erich von Stroheim, Jean Renoir had to rewrite the screenplay as the filming started to give it a more important role as it was originally meant to be an apparition. Originally also, Boëldieu’s role was written for Louis Jouvet .

Little Peters, who plays the role of Lotte, never saw the film: she was swept away by the flu a few weeks before its release [ref. necessary] .

Sylvain Itkine who plays the role of amateur prisoner officer Pindar was a member of an intelligence network during the Occupation, he was arrested by the Gestapo in summer 1944 and was shot 9 .


The filming of The Great Illusion was conducted between January and March 1937 10 . The interior scenes were filmed at Billancourt and Éclair studios in Épinay-sur-Seine . The outdoor scenes were shot in Neuf-Brisach , at the barracks (Walter district) of Colmar , at the castle of Haut-Kœnigsbourg , in a farm near Ribeauvillé on the heights of Fréland , and in Chamonix for the last sequence ( without Jean Gabin gone on another film).

Claude Renoir , who worked with his uncle Jean Renoir since 1932 , was forced to leave the shoot in Alsace for health reasons and was replaced for three weeks by his assistant Jean-Serge Bourgoin .


The soundtrack contains several melodies well known at the time of the French, English and German cultures:

  • Frou-Frou (1897), lyrics of Hector Monréal (1839-1910) and Henri Blondeau (1841-1925), music by Henri Chatau (18 ..- 1933), sung by Lucile Panis .
  • Brother Jacques
  • To the bat ‘d’Af’ song Aristide Bruant (1851-1925), whose chorus is sung by Carette during the preparation of the party, just before he comes face to face with a guard.
  • Der alte Dessauer , German military march (first performed in 1706); in the film, it is linked with the previous one when the guard burst into the room.
  • If you want Marguerite (1913), lyrics by Vincent Telly , music by Albert Valsien , created by Fragson
  • It’s a Long Way to Tipperary
  • The Marseillaise
  • He was a little ship , played by Boëldieu with his pipe, or penny whistle , to distract the guards during the escape of Rosenthal and Marshal, who later, during an altercation on the road, shouted to him one to the other.
  • Die Wacht am Rhein

Broadcasting and audience

During his public presentation, the film was cut by 18 minutes, it was screened in full version only during a festival held in Brussels in 1958. The day after the premiere at the cinema Marivaux , the film was screened without interruption from 10 am to 2 am The film was sold out at every meeting and broke all attendance records: 1.55 million francs in four weeks, 200,000 spectators in two months in one room, the best recipe of the year 1937 11 . The film has accumulated an estimated 12.5 million admissions on all theaters 12 , of which 6.5 million since 1945 11 (2,664,887 admissions in 1958 13). When it is rehearsed in theaters onThe Great Illusion totals 5,606,473 entries between its recovery until14 . Between September 1946 to 31 December 1969 it totaled 6,368,962 entries 15 . When it was released in 2012, the film totals 32,479 entries 16 .

The film was exceptionally at the White House in Washington on the anniversary of me Roosevelt . The film remained thirty-six weeks in the poster of a New York room. Until about 1970, he was still in the list of the top 10 films of all time. Often cited in the most important films of world cinema, he is one of the few films entered the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York 2 .


The film was banned in Germany by the Nazi regime and in France by the occupation authorities on17 , 18 .

Because of the pacifist spirit, claimed by Jean Renoir, and the idea of fraternization between peoples, the film was banned in France and in occupied Europe during the Second World War [ref. necessary] .

Copy of the film

The cinematheque of Toulouse recovered the original negative of the film in the 1970s from the archives of the Soviet film. This negative was probably recovered in Berlin in 1945 by the Soviets. It is this negative that made it possible to develop a restored version of the film in 2012 19 .


viewThis section does not provide enough sources (September 2010) .
The Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourgwhere part of the film was shot.


The meaning of the title of the film has long been the subject of discussion: does the “great illusion” apply to the duration of the war, which no one expected to be so long? Or does it concern the relations between the characters (the factitious rapprochement of social classes by war, the agreement between aristocrats despite the conflict of their respective homelands)? The illusion of which the title speaks is that of borders, which do not separate nations or territories, but which are above all social. During the last shot in the snow, no picture shows that the Swiss border has been passed but the German soldiers give up shooting fugitives because they consider that they are in Switzerland. A third hypothesis would be that the the illusion of the “Der des Der” evoked by Maréchal, immediately contradicted by Rosenthal in the last round of dialogue between the two escapees who are approaching the Swiss border. To Marshal who speaks of the war saying “Hoping it’s the last one,” Rosenthal replies, “Ah! you are deluding yourself! “. Indeed, the film dates from 1937, while nationalism is at its height and Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 already foreshadows a new war.


This film describes characters strongly typed (two aristocrats, a Parisian titi , a couturier and son of a Jewish banker, an actor, a teacher, an engineer, etc.) during the First World War . This film, which shows the end of the French and German aristocracy, seeks to present the balance of power and affinities between different social classes across borders and conflicts. The Great Illusion is also neither an adventure movie, nor even a war movie (there is no fight scene).

The film is taken as a charge against nationalism and antisemitism 20 .

It has also been interpreted as a pacifist work and he also was banned in 1940 by the occupation authorities for this reason 20 .

It is a scene in which we can notice a recognition of social classes. After having welcomed the two Frenchmen with a courtesy that already shows the humanist orientation of the film, Captain Rauffenstein invites them to share the table that is being prepared here at the headquarters of this German squadron. A close-up chest then shows the two officers side by side, exchanging some affinities, then another plan, of the same scale, shows Lieutenant Maréchal and the German officer sitting next to him in the same relationship of affinities. German first proposing very courteously to cut the meat of the Lieutenant Maréchal somewhat handicapped in the manipulation of his cutlery by an injured arm, then evoking, on a “no joke! “Maréchal, with the mocking sonority, the fact of

In the film, Maréchal refers to the Count of Monte-Cristo ( 18 th minute), nevertheless it is the first film to deal essentially with an escape.

The story shows no negative characters: fighters or guardians; the Allied prisoners do their duty conscientiously but without excessive heroism, except for Boëldieu. As they are presented, the prison camps of 1914-1918 do not give the impression of a terrible hell (at least the camps of officers).

Critical reception

“We feel the quality of emotion that emerges from such a film where everything has been treated with remarkable honesty and frankness. Jean Renoir made no concessions. He came face to face with no concern for anything but truth. This film of men, he treated as a man, a man with sure and direct impulses, a man who does not fear being misunderstood because he himself is unequivocal. “

Humanity , June 16, 1937

“This is the beauty of the big” job “, a perfectly lucid understanding of the cinematographic thing, its value, its chaotic vigor. From the first to the last image, the interest not only never weakens but goes crescendo; the film is orchestrated, directed. It gives off an unusual impression of powerful realism, gripping, devoid of any classicism, any orthodoxy. “

– Maurice Bessy , Cinémonde , June 10, 1937.

“Twenty years later, La Grande Illusion does not have a wrinkle. This youth, Renoir’s film, owes it to the perfection of its form. Of all the works of the author of the River , this one is certainly the best balanced, the most completed, the most classical. To this classicism, one can prefer the abundance, the originality the fantasy of The Rule of the game . Nevertheless, we are here before a summit of the French film school. [….]

War film, The Great Illusion is transformed before our eyes into an admirable love film, not only because it tells episodically the adventure of a French soldier with a German peasant, but because it exalts in what it is purest and I would say more instinctively, the fraternity of men. “

– The World , Jean de Baroncelli , October 7, 1958

“What strikes us here is Renoir’s art of composing, not just a vague atmosphere, nor that atmosphere dear to poetic realism, but more profoundly a scholarly mosaic of races and temperaments, a kind of Tower of Babel perpetually under construction and whose apparent disorder hides a higher harmony. [….]

An intimate nobility impregnates The Great Illusion , and this is all the more upsetting as man is shown imprisoned, diminished. “

– Claude Beylie , Cinema 58, November 1958

“Renoir’s genius is to offer us the most important social and moral truths without ever falling into the thesis film. And yet Renoir says what he means: classes divide men more effectively than borders. But these class divisions themselves do not resist the need for friendship and fraternity. “

– André Bazin , The Parisian Libéré , October 14, 1958

“As in Toni and The Lowlands he had just turned, as in La Marseillaise and The Rule of the game he already thought, it was for Renoir to develop this idea that fascinated him as the world is divided horizontally rather than vertically, that is, social layers rather than nations. It is the idea of a frontier that must be abolished to destroy the spirit of Babel and to reconcile the men who will always be separated from their birth. “

– François Truffaut , Arts No. 691, Oct. 8-14, 1958

Conversely, Grand Illusion is strongly criticized by Louis Ferdinand Céline in his anti-Semitic pamphlet Bagatelles pour un massacre on the grounds that a Jew can not be as friendly as Lieutenant Rosenthal 21 .


  • Award for Best Artistic Ensemble at the International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art in Venice ( V e Mostra de Venise (1937) ).
  • Award for the best foreign film awarded by the American critics in 1938 .

The film also ranks fifth in the list of the best films in the history of cinema, published on the occasion of the 1958 World Fair in Brussels 22 , 23 .

Around the film


The writer Jean des Vallières , author in 1931 of the novel The Cavalier Scharnorst , accused Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak of having plagiarized his work. Many similarities exist indeed between the film and the novel but the final judgment clears Renoir 7 .

Historical truth

A map displayed on a wall shows Germany with its borders after 1919 , that is to say those of the Weimar Republic while the portrait of the German Emperor William II appears many times on the walls, and that several elements suggest that the action seems to take place in 1916. The film mentions the loss and then the recovery of Douaumont . The action is spread over several months, given the changes of camps and attempts to escape the characters, not to mention the stay on the farm that covers Christmas (1916 or 1917) [ref. necessary] .

At the same time, the Russian prisoners receive a box from the Russian Empress (which they hope will contain food and which actually contains books), which testifies to an action taking place before the events of the Russian revolution of 1917.

There has never been an MF 902 squadron (that of Marshal) but this name corresponds to the system in force in 1914-1918 because Renoir, who was an aviator, took care to use an unassigned number, the series not having reached 600.

Notes and references

  1. ↑ Oscar nomination in 1939
  2. ↑ a and b MoMA Highlights , Collective Work, Editions of the Museum of Modern Art , New York, 1999, ( ISBN  0-87070-098-7 )p.132.
  3. ↑  [ archive ]
  4. ↑ Norman Angell , The Great Illusion , Paris, Hachette,, quoted by Philippe Simonnot , Economic error: How economists and politicians are wrong and deceive us , Paris, Denoël , coll.  “Mediations GF”,, 412 p. ( ISBN 2207253147 and 978-2207253144 ) , p.  52
  5. ↑ Claude Beylie – 1975 Jean Renoir, the show, life p.  56
  6. ↑ a and b François Truffaut , “Jean Renoir, on” The Great Illusion “” , in Classics of cinema , Balland,reissued in François Truffaut , The pleasure of the eyes , Flammarion ,p.  102-109
  7. ↑ a , b and c Stéphane Launay , ” Jean Renoir in uniform ,” Historical Review armies , o 259,p.  79-92 ( read online [ archive ] )
  8. ↑ Noémie Luciani , ” ” Grand Illusion “: the rediscovery of one of the masterpieces of Renoir, a restored copy of ” The World, ( read online  [ archive ] )
  9. ↑ Comment of the film on the DVD
  10. ↑ [1]  [ archive ]
  11. ↑ a and b The Great Illusion ”  [ archive ] , on (accessed February 4, 2016 )
  12. ↑ ” Jean Gabin ”  [ archive ] , on (accessed February 4, 2016 )
  13. ↑ All figures / The Box office 1958 , CNC
  14. ↑  [ archive ]
  15. ↑  [ archive ]
  16. ↑  [ archive ]
  17. ↑ Jean-Eudes Cordelier, ” Film censorship in France and the United States ”  [ archive ] , the association ‘Once upon a time the cinema’ (accessed 23 October 2011 )
  18. ↑ (in) (). The Great Illusion [DVD]. The Criterion Collection. [evasive]
  19. ↑ Eric Libiot , ” The incredible story of the Great Illusion “, L’Express , ( read online  [ archive ] )
  20. ↑ a and b Charlotte Garson , ” Cinema ” Étvdes , o 416,p.  394-402 ( read online  [ archive ] )
  21. ↑ Louis-Ferdinand Céline , Bagatelles pour un massacre , Denoël,p.  164-168
  22. ↑  [ archive ]
  23. ↑ [PDF]  [ archive ]

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