He first made his mark with his two silent films, Maldone (1928) and Gardiens de Phare (1929), which allowed him to develop his own brand of poetic realism. Neither of these films was a great commercial success, however, and the failure of his first sound film, La Petite Lise (1930), forced him into exile, working mainly in Germany at the Ufa Studios.
He made one film in Spain, ¡Centinela, alerta! (1937), scripted by Luis Buñuel, but his first successes came during his last few years working at the Ufa studios. These included Gueule d'amour (1937) and L'Etrange Monsieur Victor (1938), which were not just masterpieces of poetic realism but were also very popular (most probably because they starred two of France's most popular actors at the time, Jean Gabin in the first, Raimu in the second).
Back in France, now under the Nazi occupation, Grémillon made what many consider to be his two greatest masterpieces, Lumière d'été (1943) and Le ciel est à vous (1944), both of which were coveted attacks on the Vichy government. In 1945, he made another great film, Le 6 juin à l'aube, which commemorated the massacre of the Normandy landing during the Liberation. Unable to find a backer, he had to abandon a further project which was dear to his heart, Le Printemps de la Liberté, which would have marked the centenary of the revolution of 1848.
In the 1950s, Grémillon had difficulties getting funding for his films and he was forced to return to making documentary shorts. He ended his career making films about art, right up to his death, in Paris in 1959.