A Prison Camp is for Escaping: Grand Illusion (1937)

[Image: Posters for Grand Illusion, currently out of print from the Criterion Collection].

For the first film in Breaking Out and Breaking In a distributed film fest—where you watch the films at home and return here to discuss them online—co-sponsored by BLDGBLOG, Filmmaker Magazine, and Studio-X NYC, we watched Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), recently described as one of the 100 best films of world cinema (Seven Samurai, if you’re curious, was #1).

I will limit myself to discussing Grand Illusion solely from the perspective of this film fest of prison breaks and bank heists (which will be true for all the films discussed in this series). In other words, I’ll focus specifically on the topology of escape—on holes, tunnels, walls, and borders. And I should note: there are spoilers ahead.

[Images: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

The first attempted escape of the film is through the earth: tunneling from beneath the barracks of a German prison camp with the intention of popping up beyond the outer buildings, in a garden.

Removing the floorboards and hacking through exceptionally soft soil, the prisoners rig an alarm system and fashion a tentacular speaking-tube to make sure they all know if the person on digging duty has passed out in the carbon dioxide-rich microclimate being created by their tunneling activity. In fact, the speaking-tube—like an old-fashioned game of telephone—initially appears to be a breathing apparatus of some sort, as if they are, in fact, snorkeling through the earth.

[Image: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the digger—an irritatingly effusive French cabaret singer—loses consciousness, his candle goes out, and he must be hauled backward out of the mud by rope.

[Image: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

There are at least two particularly interesting things about this tunnel.

1) The diggers engage in an illicit earth-moving operation by filling their clothes with the resulting dirt, and then dumping the dirt into the garden. They’re thus generating their own little artificial topography out in the prison yard as they scoop out the earth beneath their barracks house. The negative space of the tunnel becomes this new terrain of dirt piles and rows, which are thus symptoms of this literally underground activity.

[Image: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

2) More interestingly, the tunnel is soon abandoned: all of the prisoners are moved to new camps, the barracks are emptied, the tunnel still covered by floorboards, and a last-ditch attempt to let the incoming prisoners know that there is a half-completed escape tunnel beneath their bedroom fails. A train pulls away, splitting up the prisoners and bringing them to new camps; all the while, a remnant escape route, unfinished and unknown, lies waiting to be rediscovered.

Immediately before their departure, however, there is a brief exchange between two of the film’s protagonists. Looking out at the clockwork machinations of the German guards, who march in synchrony across the prison courtyard, the imprisoned Captain de Boeldieu quips: “For me it’s simple. A golf course is for golf. A tennis court for tennis. A prison camp is for escaping.”

[Images: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

While this is by no means a remarkable piece of dialogue in and of itself, it suggests that, internal to and implied by the diagram of the camp, there is a goal or proper use, but one that runs against the grain of the space’s stated intentions. The camp is a landscape that necessitates its own peculiar misuse; escape is just the sport that actualizes this. Put another way, the design of the camp rigorously implies its own escape routes.

Further to this point, however, and as evidenced by the casual manner with which our sporting gentlemen pack up their rackets and coats and abandon their incomplete tunnel, their behavior is motivated more by following unspoken rules (of war, of the camp, of sporting etiquette) than, in a sense, by trying to win.

In any case, from this point in the film it’s onward, out and further, through a series of other camps—shown solely in montage—before the displaced captives arrive at an imposing mountaintop fortress—filmed at the Châteaux du Haut-Koenigsbourg— run by the wounded Von Rauffenstein (who, to my mind, looks remarkably like Darth Vader without a helmet, as seen in Return of the Jedi).

Von Rauffenstein takes his new forced guests on a fortifications tour, walking around the castle’s walls. “Nice castle,” one of them remarks, as another methodically recites the centuries of original construction. “12th century,” he mutters. “13th century.”

[Image: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

But all along they are looking for blindspots, low points, and ways over the wall.

[Image: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

The eventual—and final—method of escape is by way of diversion, using small flutes and makeshift drums to distract the castle guards as two prisoners make an improbable break for it down a handmade rope out of a tower. And, after a brief stop by a house in the Alps where a spot of romance pops up, they find their ultimate freedom in a moment that is absurd for all it reveals about the notion of political jurisdiction.

Running in plain view of German soldiers, who have finally caught up to them, our remaining two heroes have nothing to worry about: they have crossed an invisible line in the snow, making a mockery of all their tunnels and secret ropes, as they walk up a hill in neutral Switzerland.

[Images: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

Clearly, outside the specific context of Breaking Out and Breaking In, there is much more to discuss, including the film’s actual central theme, which is not escape but class divisions.

Hopefully, though, this will serve as a quick intro to the film’s many specifically spatial propositions. If you had a chance to watch Grand Illusion last week, by all means let us all know what you think—and stay tuned in the next day or two for a post about Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped.

(Note: Friday, February 3, brings The Great Escape).

6 thoughts on “A Prison Camp is for Escaping: Grand Illusion (1937)”

  1. This may be stretching a point, but it seemed as though the architecture, at least in the second half of this movie, is used as as a metaphor for the demise of the European aristocracy and the disappearance of their particular worldview. Despite Captain de Boieldieu's camaraderie with the working class Marechal and the Jewish Rosenthal, in the end, he can move around the castle with magical ease but cannot escape it and is doomed to die within it, while Marechal and Rosenthal do escape — and find salvation in a humble barn!

    In other words, de Boieldieu dies in the irreparably injured von Rauffenstein's castle and Marechal and Rosenthal thrive in Elsa's farmhouse — and those architectural affiliations go beyond national ties to express a pan-European shift in social structure.

  2. I love the ideas explored in this series – architecture as the obstacle. Wish I was there for it. I may just have to rent them all myself. So weird… So you. And there you go, digging into the earth again! ^_^ [j.choi]

  3. This was a terrifc film to kick off the series and your post is full of some great insights – especially the observation that the design of the camp implies its own escape routes. I think that variations of this theme will be recurring throughout the film series and, at least to me, it explains why crime is such an effective critical device: it reveals the unintended affordances of design.

    It was also interesting seeing the spatial idiosyncracies of each prison. The cabin and the castle act as both accomplice and obstacle to the POWs, offering them concealment one moment, while preventing or hindering escape the next. Re: Nicola's point above about the castle as outmoded aristocratic playground, I think that's dead on. But I have a small issue with the farmhouse scenes. The fugitives seem to forget about their plight too quickly. I'd think the nature of the hideout –no matter how idyllic– would propagate paranoia and insecurity rather than domestic bliss (Tagline: "No prison could hold him. But he couldn't escape the love of a beautiful woman.").

  4. Excellent points here — from the representations of the architecture as class to the calming qualities of Alps hideout living.

    This point that JS made about the first camp acting as an accomplice struck me as a quality that we'll probably see dissipate as we move forward chronologically. Certainly the freedoms of movement and association afforded to the prisoners bears little resemblance to the time I've spent in jails!

    Full disclosure: I have never been an officer-ranked prisoner-of-war in it for the long haul

    Without this ability to explore and exploit the space, though, we would have a completely different movie. Even after our protagonists reach the castle, they still are given enough idle time and freedom of exploration to facilitate an escape.

    Speaking of time: the carving out of this fourth dimension of space is what ultimately allows Marechal & Rosenthal to escape. In fulfilling his duties as an officer, de Boeldieu occupies enough physical space in the castle to occupy all of the guards' mindspace, as they focus solely on apprehending — or executing — the errant captain. Marechal is able to stand in the shadows as guards run by him — they are so focused on his commanding officer that they lose their spatial awareness.

    & lastly, I think this film was a solid start for the series. Having seen THE GREAT ESCAPE already, this movie provided more context for the World War II yarn, as well as explained some of the innovations necessary for tunnel digging. More on the Sturges film when appropriate.

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