This is the best of the three Renoir films I've seen. The River, set in India, is the worst, at least from the POV of Indian sensibility (reviewed somewhere on this blog). Grand Illusion is acclaimed as a masterpiece. I certainly found it enjoyable, choked with the tragic ironies and absurdities of war, a strange film. It is out and out anti war and is a compound of satire, humanism, and acute observation, with a stretch of caricature. Set in WW1, it was released just before WW2. No wonder it was suppressed by the authorities, so powerful and heartfelt is the anti war message. War is an unnatural manufactured thing and the differences, here between the French and Germans, have to be pumped up. The average soldier as well as officers have a hard time sustaining the hatred, almost a duty. It is full of social observation, the sense of fraternity between the French and German officers as a social stratum, reminiscent of the mutual recognition between the officers of India and Pakistan, both trained in the British military ethos, during the Bangladesh war. Finally we have the heart rending POV of a German woman who has lost all her kin in the war and who offers shelter to two escaped French POWs. This is truly a perfect film and could hardly have been digestible to the officialdom. Erich von Stroheim as the aristocratic German commandant of the POW camp gives an unforgettable performance.
What indeed is the Illusion? The Enemy. The hatred against people on the other side is a feeling that has to be systematically worked up in an organized fashion to the point of hysteria. What greater sin is there in wartime than not to hate the guys on the other side of the fence?