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  • The Milieu of the Prisoner-of-War Camp in La Grande Illusion
  • Melanie Conroy

Jean Renoir set his great film, La Grande Illusion (1937), in the relatively comfortable milieu of the German prisoner-of-war camp for officers of the First World War (Offizierlager). Renoir’s decision to set the film in the camps for officers – rather than the camps for enlisted men (Mannschaftslager) – is responsible for many of the film’s themes. Unlike the contemporary prisoner-of-war camps for enlisted men, these officers’ camps were fairly well regulated and respectful of the rights of captured soldiers. The Offizierlager housed only officers, a population that was disproportionately well educated and even aristocratic. As in the film, these camps were often established in fortresses, walled areas, and even walled cities, anywhere that large numbers of men could be comfortably housed while being denied freedom of movement. Many of the themes of the film derive directly from aspects of these camps: the elitism, cosmopolitanism, military honor, and personal pride of many of the officers, especially the German Junker von Rauffenstein and the noble captain de Boëldieu, whose relationship stands at the center of the film.

La Grande Illusion has often been read as an allegory of European decline. According to this reading, the German von Rauffenstein and the captain de Boëldieu represent different aspects of the traditional nobility, or of European tradition. The film stages a confrontation between two types of aristocracy: the Germanic “blood and soil” aristocracy and the more inclusive French model. While this allegorical reading is valid, it fails to uncover much of what Renoir seeks to occlude in the film – that is, the shared socioeconomic privilege of the officer class. Through deft use of editing and montage, Renoir creates a sense of continuity between the various camps, particularly in the long series of dissolve shots that appear to be taken from the perspective of the prisoners on the train that takes them from one camp to [End Page 371] another. Whereas the Offizierlager was a very specialized milieu, divided off from the rest of the war and even other prisoner-of-war camps, it appears in La Grande Illusion as the whole of the space of war. The Offizierlager stands in metonymically for a new possible Europe, but this is an imaginary version of Europe built on the socio-economic and legal privileges accorded to the officer class. Paying attention to the spaces that the film occupies – rather than simply the characters – reveals the ways in which filmic milieu and the illusions of realism can create a false sense of continuity between discontinuous experiences.

La Grande Illusion is not a film about the mechanics of escaping from a prison camp; it is a film about the social experience within the camp. The milieu of the prisoner-of-war camp is highly developed through diverse character studies in La Grande Illusion. There are characters representing the lower classes, the upper classes, and the bourgeoisie, with enough individual variation to produce the illusion of a real society. Yet the characters are not atomized individuals; they change and articulate their perspectives in relation to one another. The status of characters in the film is marked by their speech, dress, and manners. The aristocratic de Boëldieu wears a fur coat and a monocle that contrasts comically with Maréchal’s sailor-like peacoat. They do not, however, have spaces that they are able to personalize.

Von Rauffenstein is the physical and spiritual manifestation of the German Kulturkrieg: imperious, honorable, and magnanimous. “The First World War was a Kulturkrieg,” writes Wolfgang Natter, “not only in the rhetoric of cultural superiority professed by German chauvinists, but also in the sense that the cultural sphere was an essential component that was instrumentalized for the war effort” (205). Only von Rauffenstein, the highest-status character in the film, has an elaborately decorated room that gestures at his personality and cultural background. His room in Wintersborn, adorned with images of the Kaiser and medieval artifacts, reflects his immersion in a martial aristocratic culture. He is not culturally French or even Francophile, despite his many attempts to appear so in the company of...