The Celluloid Pantry: An Edible Manger Scene and The Grand Illusion (France, 1937)

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

One of the smallest, most perfect Christmas scenes in cinema comes from a French war film that trancends boundaries of race, language, religion, and social class.

In The Grand Illusion (France, 1937), two escaped French POWs, Lieutenants Maréchal (Jean Gabin, center) and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio, left), are taken in by a German war widow, Elsa (Dita Parlo, right).

Spending Christmas eve together in Elsa’s farmhouse, Rosenthal (who is Jewish) and Maréchal (who speaks little German) put together a surprise for her daughter, Lotte. Scavenging from the simple, homely supplies on hand, Rosenthal makes a manger scene with people and animals constructed from apples, leeks, and bread.

“Isn’t my little donkey cute?” says Rosenthal, “and my ox….and the infant Jesus? An ancestor of mine.” “Touché,” says Maréchal.

But when Lotte sees the scene, she wants to eat baby Jesus. “Strictly forbidden, my sweet.”

“Then I’ll eat Joseph,” she says.