de Boeldieu recognises that a new world order is coming, that men of his white-gloved, immaculately-combed, multilingual ilk are on the way out; indeed, he welcomes this, gets on well with Maréchal, a working-class mechanic from Paris, and accepts that to continue life after the war would be to live a futile existence. von Rauffenstein is not so easily swayed, lamenting the "joli cadeau de la Révolution française" (the French Revolution's charming gift/legacy) that has, as it were, "diluted" what aristocratic sway he and his kind would once have had. It is this difference which forms the heart of the film in my view: in the end de Boeldieu is prepared to die for his two working-class friends, Maréchal and Rosenthal, men whom von Rauffenstein considers beneath him. The former recognises that it is better for him to die a tragic figure in battle who enables a better world to emerge than it is to continue on in a world where his entire milieu - its traditions and expectations - is dead. Could this be critiqued as an instance of the aristocrat making the story about him? Perhaps. But the film doesn't do this, instead following the two escapees as they flee.
It's also just a beautifully shot film, now beautifully restored so that its sweeping monochrome vistas of Alpine slopes can be viewed in all their glory. Perhaps most dramatic and powerful in all its various set-pieces is the famous vaudeville show put on at the first prisoner-of-war camp; a huge chest of women's clothes arrives, the men dress up, and perform various jolly acts, culminating in an almost heartbreakingly optimistic performance of "Si tu veux Marguerite" by Cartier (Julien Carette). Here is a different kind of illusion. Here is the great illusion that is spectacle, the show going on even in the midst of wartime, stiff upper lip, showboating, and indeed living life with the same painted smiles, cardboard scenery and unreal material surroundings even as war rages around you. In so drawing our attention to this illusory quality, Renoir presents not just the performance on the makeshift POW camp stage as illusion, but film itself ("what we do as filmmakers - it's a trick. It's a projection of light," as Werner Herzog would later put it). And all that to a simple ditty. It's a barnstormingly good sequence, only one of many in this utter classic. Even its poster is iconic.