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Savant International Dinner and a Movie Review:

Grand Illusion

Grand Illusion
1937 / B&W / 1:37 flat / 114/120m. / La Grande illusion
Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Dita Parlo, Marcel Dalio
Cinematography Christian Matras
Art Direction Eugène Lourié
Film Editors Marthe Huguet, Marguerite Renoir
Original Music Joseph Kosma
Writing credits Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak
Produced by Albert Pinkovitch & Frank Rollmer
Directed by Jean Renoir

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

On September 11, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs will present La grande illusion as the first film in their International Dinner and a Movie screening series. This sounds like a bargain - French Cuisine at the Chicago Cultural Center, followed by a classic French film. This screening will be introduced by critic Ted Shen of Chicago Magazine. The full details for those of you in the Chicago area, can be found at this link.


Shot down over the German lines, French Captain de Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and his mechanic Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) are confined to a crowded prison camp, until they are transferred to another detention center in a castle commanded by the crippled Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). Rauffenstein is the flyer who shot them down and is a man obsessed with attending to his noble lineage and the rights and obligations it represents; fatalistic and melancholy, he strikes up a strange friendship with his aristocratic prisoner, that brings the totality of war, national differences, and class differences into bold relief.

In film school they called it one of the greatest films ever made, considered the best by film critics everywhere until Citizen Kane came along. Then they showed us the worst faded, scratched, broken and muffled-sounding print imaginable, with subtitles seemingly designed to obscure the story. Those of us who didn't fall asleep, got headaches. But one of the bonus prizes of the spate of '90s restorations is this completely refurbished DVD of Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion, which before was almost impossible to fully appreciate. Now it's clear just why it's considered a great movie.

Made in 1937 in a Europe sliding toward a war more terrible than anyone could imagine, The Grand Illusion is technically a pacifist statement, along the lines of Gance's two versions of J'accuse, where the ghosts of dead soldiers return from the dead to accuse the living of once again allowing war, and Pabst's Kameradschaft, in which the guarded frontier is opened just long enough for German miners to rescue some trapped French comrades. Both of those films, made earlier in the '30s when war was not imminent, are fairly strident message pictures. The Grand Illusion is just as emotional, but its subject matter encompasses a larger picture of Europe with its hopes and promises, and problems.

With its restored minutes and more accurate subtitles, The Grand Illusion starts off almost the same as The Great Escape. The captured prisoners endure the same kinds of hardships and find ways to get along with their captors and the prisoners of other nationalities. There are even plans for an escape. But, as the noble de Boieldieu and the 'common', Jewish Rosenthal find out, class distinctions remain intact even in war and even through the veneer of masculine comradeship that most war films elevate to ridiculous extremes. Rosenthal is a wealthy Frenchman, and the parcels his family sends him instantly create resentments. De Boieldieu is a good sort, but maintains a consistently superior attitude.

Writers Renoir and Spaak portray the bigotry very subtly, matter-of-factly, yet make it an important influence on all that happens. Our middle-class hero, the cheerful Mareéchal, is just as prone to personal prejudices as anyone else. And Rosenthal can be blind to the feelings of others, too.

They say generals always try to fight new wars with the outmoded strategies of old wars; The Grand Illusion shows it's not focused on the 1937 situation by its attention to the role that nobility played in WW1. For the aristocrats, their station as superior people is of more importance than the war itself; von Rauffenstein especially seems obsessed with the success or failure of his search for his noble destiny, which a flying accident has thwarted. In WW2 films, officers and men often function on equal terms, but back in this age of privilege, the officers are officers simply by right of noble birth, and the automatic advantages of their class assure them separate treatment at all times. The French and German Captains behave with undisturbed gentility toward one another, even right after combat; von Rauffenstein's solicitude indicates a loyalty to class that supercedes nationalism. The Grand Illusion shows them both at their chivalrous best, even as it brands the entire world of royalty and privilege as fundamentally rotten. WW1 swept away much of the power of that system, but Renoir seems to indicate that Europe will have to abandon it totally before anything like a fair society can emerge. If there's anything like a symbol here, it's the rigid harness that keeps von Rauffenstein's injured back in line, a corset that makes him behave with the unnatural stiffness of his aristocratic class. This is a role von Stroheim was born to play.

Unlike The Great Escape, the 'escape' here is neither exhilarating nor swift. Two of the prisoners walk halfway across Germany in the dead of winter, hoping to reach the frontier, across a landscape left barren because the farmers have all been conscripted to fight. They come across the farm of war widow Else (Dita Parlo, of the classic L'Atlante) and stay a spell, entertaining Else's tiny daughter while trying to figure out the best time to make for the border. The enemy is revealed to be a touchingly forlorn woman, mourning the loss of her brothers and husband. There is a Christmas scene involving a manger display made from carved potatoes that is one of the most moving ever filmed. If the de Boieldieus and von Rauffensteins devalue war in favor of their class concerns, the two escapees see only the need to survive and the desire to lead decent lives. War, nations, enemies and borders no longer mean anything to them. Nazi Germany, naturally, immediately banned The Grand Illusion upon release.

Criterion once again takes a classic and makes it an entirely new experience. The original camera negative was rediscovered in the '90s, and provided the basis for this transfer (and the screening print for the International Dinner and a Movie) screening. The restoration demonstration will make clear Savant's memory of the dull wreckage we watched in college. The disc also contains an audio essay by Peter Cowie, a radio excerpt of Renoir and von Stroheim accepting a NY Critics award for the film, and a pretty amazing French reissue trailer where Renoir relates his experiences in war.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Grand Illusion rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer, radio excerpt, restoration demo, commentary by Peter Cowie
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: September 4, 2001

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