On Friday, October 25, the New-York Historical Society will host a free showing of Grand Illusion, with opening remarks by David Denby and Kati Marton, as part of its WWI and Its Legacy Film series. Directed by Jean Renoir, the film follows French officers attempting to escape a German POW camp, but Renoir uses the POW structure to comment on class relationships, war, and Europe’s changing social order.
Within the POW camp, aristocratic prisoner Captain de Boeldieu finds he has common acquaintances with captor Captain von Rauffenstein, and the two discover they share more common ground than with the lower classes of their own countries. In the 1938 New York Times review, Frank Nugent says “Theirs is an affinity bred of mutual self-contempt, of the realization of being part of an outgrown era. The other prisoners are less heroic, but more human.”
The two also share the aristocratic idea that the rich have a duty to defend their countries, and that going to war has a purpose. But Nugent says, “War is the grand illusion and Renoir proceeds with his disillusioning task by studying it, not in the front line, but in the prison camps, where captors and captives alike are condemned to the dry rot of inaction. War is not reality; prison camp is. Only the real may survive it.” This message must have been especially poignant in 1938, with Europe on the brink of WWII.
Renoir said of the work, “[La Grande Illusion is] a story about human relationships. I am confident that such a question is so important today that if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say ‘goodbye’ to our beautiful world.” And after two World Wars and countless other conflicts, those words still ring true.
Entrance to the film series is included with Museum Admission during New-York Historical’s Pay-as-you-wish Friday Nights (6 – 8 pm). No advanced reservations. Tickets are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 6 pm.