How Jean Renoir’s Great Anti-War Film Grand Illusion Became “Cinematographic Enemy Number One” to the Nazis

Con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, Nazi pro­pa­gan­da min­is­ter Joseph Goebbels did not admit to spread­ing a “Big Lie.” As schol­ar of Ger­man pro­pa­gan­da Ran­dall Bytwerk says, “Goebbels always main­tained that pro­pa­gan­da had to be truth­ful. That doesn’t mean he didn’t lie, but it would be a pret­ty poor pro­pa­gan­dist who pub­licly pro­claimed that he was going to lie.” Still, Goebbels inces­sant­ly accused oth­ers of lying and spread­ing dis­hon­est pro­pa­gan­da, and he bru­tal­ly sup­pressed those truths he found incon­ve­nient. He was par­tic­u­lar­ly incensed at the 1937 release of a film by French direc­tor Jean Renoir (son of the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir) called La Grande Illu­siona film that ques­tioned sev­er­al fan­tasies the Nazis seemed des­per­ate to main­tain.

Among these were the idea that war was inevitable and desir­able, that a nat­ur­al aris­toc­ra­cy should rise above the com­mon horde — and that elites should have no sol­i­dar­i­ty or sym­pa­thy for Jews or oth­er minori­ties. These beliefs were cen­tral to fas­cist ide­ol­o­gy and to Goebbels’ pro­pa­gan­da project. Renoir’s Grand Illu­sion under­mined them all, despite the fact that it was set in World War I and based on an even ear­li­er British book, Nor­man Angell’s The Great Illu­sion, from 1909, which argued that war in Europe was eco­nom­i­cal­ly destruc­tive in con­trast to mutu­al co-oper­a­tion. Goebbels so feared Renoir’s anti-war film he called it “cin­e­mato­graph­ic ene­my num­ber one” and ordered every print turned over and burned and the orig­i­nal neg­a­tives destroyed.

Cin­e­ma Tyler explains in the video at the top how the effort to stamp out The Grand Illu­sion “had the full might of the Nazi pro­pa­gan­da machine on a mis­sion to destroy every copy.” They failed. As Roger Ebert notes, the orig­i­nal neg­a­tive, assumed destroyed in a 1942 Allied air raid, “had already been sin­gled out by a Ger­man film archivist named Frank Hensel, then a Nazi offi­cer in Paris, who had it shipped to Berlin.” In the 1960s, Renoir him­self “super­vised the assem­bly of a ‘restored’ print,” Then, thir­ty years lat­er, at the time of Ebert’s writ­ing in 1999, the orig­i­nal neg­a­tive resur­faced and a sparkling new print cir­cu­lat­ed, renew­ing praise for a movie about which Franklin Roo­sevelt pro­claimed, at the time of its release, “all the democ­ra­cies in the world must see this film.”

The film came out as Nazi Ger­many and the Sovi­et Union squared off aggres­sive­ly in mon­u­men­tal pavil­ions for the 1937 Inter­na­tion­al Expo­si­tion of Arts and Tech­nics in Mod­ern Life in Paris. Ger­many was three years away from invad­ing France, and while Renoir could not have known the future, the film uses its char­ac­ters “to illus­trate how the themes of the first war would trag­i­cal­ly wors­en in the sec­ond,” Ebert writes. It cen­ters on three cap­tured French offi­cers: “De Boield­ieu (Pierre Fres­nay), from an old aris­to­crat­ic fam­i­ly.… Marechal (Jean Gabin), a work­ing­man, a mem­ber of the emerg­ing pro­le­tari­at, and Rosen­thal (Mar­cel Dalio), a Jew­ish banker who has iron­i­cal­ly pur­chased the chateau that de Boield­ieu’s fam­i­ly can no longer afford.”

The French offi­cers’ jailor, wound­ed pilot von Rauf­fen­stein (played by great Ger­man silent direc­tor Erich von Stro­heim), believes him­self to have more in com­mon with de Boield­ieu than the lat­ter does with his coun­try­men, and in many respects, this proves so. Still, the French aris­to­crat uses his priv­i­lege, as we might say today, to help the oth­er pris­on­ers escape, at the cost of his life. When Marechal and Rosen­thal are giv­en shel­ter by a Ger­man farm wid­ow, “per­haps Renoir is whis­per­ing that the true class con­nec­tion across ene­my lines is between the work­ers, not the rulers,” writes Ebert. Per­haps it was also the nation­al sol­i­dar­i­ty among the pris­on­ers that unset­tled Goebbels — their per­sis­tent, “sin­gle obses­sion: to escape,” despite the com­forts of their cap­tiv­i­ty, as the film’s trail­er says dra­mat­i­cal­ly above. The war had not yet begun, and yet, writes A.O. Scott at The New York Times:

In France the late 1930s were the years of the Pop­u­lar Front, an attempt by the left to counter the rise of fas­cism and over­come its own ten­den­cies toward sec­tar­i­an­ism and ortho­doxy. The polit­i­cal face of the front was Léon Blum, a mod­er­ate Jew­ish Social­ist whose two trun­cat­ed, frus­trat­ing terms as prime min­is­ter coin­cid­ed with the pro­duc­tion and release of Renoir’s film.… The action takes place dur­ing World War I (in which Renoir had served as a pilot), when the Drey­fus Affair was still a recent mem­o­ry, but it has an eye on con­tem­po­rary anti-Semi­tism and labor mil­i­tan­cy as well as a sub­tle, anx­ious pre­mo­ni­tion of glob­al con­flicts to come.

Grand Illu­sion not only inspired two of the most famous moments of film his­to­ry — the tun­nel in The Great Escape and the singing of “La Mar­seil­laise” in Casablan­ca — but it remains in its own right one of the great­est films ever made. (Orson Welles claimed it as one of only two films he would take with him “on the ark.”) It con­tin­ues in its “gen­tly iron­ic” way, to “ques­tion all kinds of ‘illu­sions,’ ” writes David M. Lubin, “that, in [Renoir’s] view sus­tain mod­ern war­fare: that one side is moral­ly supe­ri­or to the oth­er… that class divi­sions are nat­ur­al, that men must be con­ven­tion­al­ly man­ly, that Jews are infe­ri­or to Gen­tiles, and so forth.” Rather than sim­ply denounce Grand Illu­sion as a big, pro­pa­gan­dis­tic lie, Goebbels tried to have it snuffed out of exis­tence.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Edu­ca­tion for Death: The Mak­ing of the Nazi–Walt Disney’s 1943 Film Shows How Fas­cists Are Made

Redis­cov­ered: The First Amer­i­can Anti-Nazi Film, Banned by U.S. Cen­sors and For­got­ten for 80 Years

Watch a Grip­ping 10-Minute Ani­ma­tion About the Hunt for Nazi War Crim­i­nal Adolf Eich­mann

Watch Georges Méliès’ The Drey­fus Affair, the Con­tro­ver­sial Film Cen­sored by the French Gov­ern­ment for 50 Years (1899)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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