Jean Renoir's masterpiece La Grande Illusion (1937) tells the story of two French prisoners of war escaping through Germany towards France during World War I. Its themes of divided class, racial and national loyalties and the conflict between patriotism and pacifism made it a controversial film on its release on the eve of World War II. Goebbels, who had once declared the film 'Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1', ordered the prints to be confiscated during the Nazi Occupation of France.
Julian Jackson's compelling study places the film in the context of Renoir's involvement with the left-wing Popular Front, which was split between supporters of an anti-Fascist war and believers in peace at all costs. Jackson highlights the film's ambiguity in its treatment of patriotism and pacifism and argues that it is suspended between two historical moments – the Popular Front of the 1930s and the Vichy regime of the 1940s. He traces the film's history after its release – it was banned during the 'phoney war' for its pacifist undertones; banned by the Nazis for being too patriotic; disliked by the Resistance for portraying the Germans too sympathetically and for its treatment of anti-Semitism.
Jackson discusses the unforgettable performances of Jean Gabin as the working-class Lieutentant Maréchal, Pierre Fresnay as the aristocratic Captain de Boëldieu, Erich von Stroheim as the upper-class Captain von Rauffenstein and Marcel Dalio as the French Jew Rosenthal. He analyses Renoir's highly individual filming style and explores his conception of cinematic 'realism'. Finally, he offers his own answer to the mystery of the film's title: what was the great illusion?