Director Jean Renoir's 1937 film is a depiction of the First World War, starring such beloved French actors as Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay. French aviators Captain de Boeldieu (Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Gabin) are shot down by an aristocratic German, Captain von Rauffenstein. The two Frenchmen are subsequently captured and taken to a German P.O.W. camp where they attempt to escape several times until they are sent to an impenetrable fortress.
The film poignantly underscores the social and political tension, particularly between France and Germany, during the time of World War I. Although it won a prize at the 1937 Venice Film Festival for “Best Artistic Ensemble,” it was soon declared to be “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1” by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister. Several years later, French authorities, fearing that the film would negatively influence fighting morale, banned the film in 1940 for the duration of the war. Today, despite its controversial political origins, the film is ranked as one of “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema” and celebrated by critics and film historians alike as one of the monuments of French cinema.