The Grand Illusion and Social Identity

War leads to the massive loss of life, the non-recognition of human rights and dignity. But then, amidst its horrors, great acts of humanity are committed by people of various social backgrounds. Violence and conditions of uncertainty transform social identities with regards to ethnicity and class, enabling men to aid others for the very reason that they are fellow humans. This paper expounds on this idea through insights from a film classic, a sociological theory as well as common knowledge history.
Background of the Film
The 1937 film “The Grand Illusion” was one of the masterpieces of French director Jean Renoir. Having served in the First World War himself, Renoir witnessed first hand the gruesome experiences of being powerless in the face of an oppressive situation. He sought to express his anti-war sentiments through film. Although he used World War I as the setting, the film came at a time when the world was once again at the brink of another.

The film underscores the theme that war is not the answer to society’s problems but rather exacerbates them. It shows how the elite or the aristocracy resorted to war in order to sustain and expand economic and political interests. Prior to World War II, the Jews began to dominate Germany’s economy with the superb entrepreneurial skills peculiar to their culture that enhanced their social mobility.
The success of the war depended on the support of the citizenry whose bulk was composed of the middle and working classes. For Germany, the single greatest binding force that united them together was in the ethnocentric conception of the superiority of the German race. This was compounded in the narrow nationalist promotion of “Germany for Germans”. Both ideas worked to entrench a strong Anti-Semitist sentiment in the country.
This shifting of social identities towards the ultimate expression of humanity in war is effectively captured in “The Grand Illusion”. Here, social identity stems from the recognition of one’s membership in a social group united through similar roles and viewpoints (Stets and Burke, 2000, p.225). Renoir’s intention was to portray the transcendence over ethnicity and social class as illusions, aptly because they are the glaring opposite of social reality.
Social Identity and Transcendence
Social Class across Nationalities
French-German Aristocrats
The film portrayed the universality of social class and the common group identities of similar social classes across borders. The German Captain von Rauffenstein is seen inviting his prisoner, the French Captain de Boeldieu, to lunch just because the latter was an officer, and so, a fellow aristocrat. Their identification with one another stems from their common fulfillment of the roles and expectations associated with their class.
The scenes that followed showed them enjoying each others’ company thus forming an in-group, highlighting their difference (in-group favoritism) from the commoners, the out-group. They talk animatedly about experiences privileged to the elite – cuisine, women and familiar people. Their use of German, French and English further emphasizes their ability to overcome the German-French and prisoner-captor divide.
Stets and Burke (2000) stated that “in-group homogeneity is especially strong when no motivational forces exist to distinguish the self from others within the group”(p.226). In the final scenes, Captain de Boeldieu distracts the German guards to enable his two companions to escape. German Captain von Rauffenstein tried to talk him into submission first but was forced to shoot him. De Boeldieu was a fellow aristrocrat (part of an in-group) but more than this, he was also a French officer, an enemy (motivational force).
The scenes depicting the dying de Boeldieu talking to von Rauffenstein saw how identity roles take center stage over group identity. Though both of them see their identity as aristocrats, in the process of the war, they came to see their roles differently. Von Rauffenstein believed in the purpose of the war while de Boeldieu believed that their class was dysfunctional and welcomed the possibility of society being led by the lower class.
Similarly, identity roles taking precedence was illustrated in de Boeldieu allowing Lieutenant Marechal, his fellow aviator who was a mechanic before the war, to escape. Group identity would dictate that de Boeldieu, in order to perform his duty, would take advantage of the situation for himself. But because he saw his identity role differently, he died allowing a commoner to regain his freedom.
French-German Commoners
The transcendence over social class across nationalities was also demonstrated during the escape of Marechal together with another prisoner named Rosenthal who was a Jew. Traveling on foot over unfamiliar and hostile territory presented difficulties and was further exacerbated when Rosenthal sustained injuries. As such, they were forced to ask for help at the farm that they came across with.
The resident was a German woman, Elsa, whose husband tragically died fighting in the war. She shared a similar identity with Marechal who also came from a working class background. The common realization that there is much to lose in the war but none to gain (similarities), led both Elsa and Marechal to overcome differences in nationality and language barriers for the woman to help the fugitives.
Ethnicity and Social Identity
One of the characters in the film was a Jew named Rosenthal. He belonged to the upper class but was originally a commoner. The film dispels the exaggerated dissimilarities that led to prejudicial or Anti-Semitic sentiments when Rosenthal’s character was portrayed as compassionate. Although he was upper class, he gave parts of his meals to his fellow prisoners without exception. Thus, he maintained favorable relationships with all captives in the camp.
This suggests that Rosenthal as a Jew and the non-Jew prisoners overcame ethnic differences because their identity was primarily based on all of them being prisoners (social group). Thus they performed a common role and viewpoint – to dig a tunnel and escape in order to return to their respective territories and continue performing their duty to fight against the common enemy. Here, the German guards are the out-group.
Conclusion
The transcendence over social identity is easily accomplished under circumstances of chaos and instability that are not conventional during times of peace. This is because as social experiments have proven, divisions between groups are minimized when there are common goals that can only be achieved through collective efforts (SIT lecture). In the film, prisoners from different classes and ethnicities worked together to dig a tunnel as a common means of escape. The sharing of food for equal sustenance to all was also depicted, albeit through Rosenthal as an individual, increasing everyone’s chances of survival.
Transcendence on an individual level can also be accomplished when one’s perception of identity role deviates from the traditional group identity boundaries, i.e. de Boeldeiu’s self-sacrifice for a commoner as a way out of the aristocrat failure as a class in contrast to von Rauffenstein’s steadfast conformity to aristocratic duties. The latter’s conformity is due to his commitment of a role that is salient to him (Stets and Burke, 2000, p.232).
As social identity results from comparison of one’s self from others and recognizing the similarities in experience can also lead one to transcend socially defined divisions. This was exemplified in the relationship of the French Lieutenant Marechal and the German peasant, Elsa.
Non-transcendence on the part of the German guards and their officers, who represented the German state under Hitler in history, was due to their segregation of themselves as a superior race and their determined attempts to compete over economic and political superiority as well.
In general, the film has been rich in examples showing how social identification leads to social conflict and also to conflict resolution. The lessons borne out of this classic film are invaluable as we face a world today where war seems to be the solution to contradictions among nations, races, ethnic groups and social classes.
List of References
Stets, J.E. and Burke, P.J. (2000). Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory. Social
Psychology Quarterly, 63(3), p.224-237.
Social Identity Theory Powerpoint (Lecture).

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