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GRAND ILLUSION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim
Director:  Jean Renoir
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  114 Minutes
Release Date:  November 23, 1999

Film ****

It seems like I’ve been repeating this mantra a lot in my reviews, but some things deserve repeating.  So here goes:  Criterion has done another outstanding job in presenting an important, classic film on DVD, in such away that it’s likely to be the definitive version the movie for decades to come.  In this case, the movie is Jean Renoir’s classic World War I film, Grand Illusion.  Considered by many to be one of the greatest and most important films ever made, Criterion treated it as such, with a bar-raising restoration effort (more on that further down) that has made this French classic look better now that it possibly ever has before.

So what is the illusion Renoir refers to?  Simply the notion that gentlemen can fight a war and still be able to be called gentlemen.  Renoir saw in the first World War the end of an era for the class system of Europe.  Naturally, there will always be the haves, the have nots, and the multitudes of us somewhere in between, but suddenly, when the “Great War” ended, that illusion had been shattered for all time.  One need only look at World War II, which was in swing while Renoir made this picture, to see a marked difference in attitudes…so much so, that when Grand Illusion enjoyed a re-release in the 50’s. Renoir felt obliged to include a new introduction explaining his purposes to audiences, who were apt to find it strange that the French and German enemies in his picture treat each other with respect and civility, even to the point of sitting down to an occasional meal together.

Suffice to say, his movie is not about the philosophies or horrors of war, and it is not about the everyday man fighting it out in the trenches.  It’s about the struggle to hold on to the notion that class and nobility still meant something in the midst of a war the likes of which the world had never seen before.  It may have started like a so-called “gentlemen’s war”—remember, the whole ugly affair started over the assassination of a Grand Duke, and Germany, who later was forced to take full blame for the war in its entirety, actually had nothing to do with the events that started it—but by the time it was over, many had to reconcile to the fact that war is not civil, and those who fight in it have to discard any semblance of nobility and harness the darker, uglier side of human nature in order to win.

Renoir’s “illusion” begins early on.  A German officer, Captain von Rauffenstein (von Stroheim) has announced to his aide that he has just shot down a French plane, and he asks that the men be attended to, and if they are officers, to invite them to lunch.  They are officers, the middle classed Marechal (Gabin) and the nobleman Captain de Boieldieu (Fresnay).  In a strange sequence, the French and German officers do sit and enjoy an affable meal together, in spite of what has just taken place.  One of the Germans even offers to cut the meat for Marechal, who was injured in the skirmish.  Then, as they dine, a German carrying a wreath comes through the room.  The wreath is a memorial to other French officers recently killed in another fight.  Rauffenstein apologizes for the irony, and even offers a toast to their “valiant enemy”.

If what I’ve just described sounds like parody, it truly isn’t.  The scene is not played for, nor does it inspire, any laughs.  It’s a sobering look at a way of life that is already beginning to disappear.

Soon, the men retreat to life in a P.O.W. camp, where they are treated with dignity and respect provided they return the courtesy and obey the rules.  Naturally, they are warned that those who attempt to escape will be shot, and that’s just what the two French officers, along with a Jewish friend Rosenthal (Dalio), have in mind.  In a well executed plan, the men take turn tunneling under the barracks, and during the outdoor exercise drills, they quietly empty their bags of dirt into the garden.  They must have used medifast or something similar to stay in shape despite not using their exercise time to actually exercise, because they all looked pretty healthy still!

But fate had something different in mind for the men, and a mere four days away from the successful completion of their tunnel, they are transferred to a new officers camp run by their old acquaintance Rauffenstein.  He, in the interim, had been wounded badly, suffering burns on most of his body, and almost debilitating injuries to his back, neck, and knee.  Upon reuniting with his fellow nobleman Boieldieu, they share a quiet drink, though something stronger than what you'd need a Medifast coupon for, and he confesses that the reason he now has taken the lowly assignment of running a prison camp is because there’s nothing left for him back in civilian life.  His title means nothing, and to his way of thinking, the only thing left that defines him is his service in the army.

It is in this setting that class nobility seems to make a last stand.  Boieldieu, despite giving his word as a gentlemen that neither he nor his men will try to escape, creates a diversion for his soldiers by running away himself.  While the German guards go after him, his underlings have a chance to get away.  Case in point:  ordinarily, a nobleman would never risk his life for underclassmen, but as Renoir has skillfully demonstrated, the war was indeed altering that line of thinking.

Then, in one of cinema’s most memorable sequences, Rauffenstein pleads for Boieldieu not to run.  His duty is to shoot the escaping prisoner if he doesn’t give himself up.  But Boieldieu continues, needing to buy his men more time.  Rauffenstein shoots.  The sequence is followed by a tragic scene, where Boieldieu lays dying and Rauffenstein tries to comfort both of them.  Afterwards, the disheartened German captain returns to his office, where he quietly snips the blossom from his geranium, the one item of beauty and splendor in an otherwise bleak surrounding.

To drive the point even further home, Renoir shows his two escaped French officers on the lam, taking help and shelter from a poor German single mother.  The class lines may always exist in one form or another, but the class system really did become a thing of the past with the war, which eventually would escalate beyond all imagination and even involve the United States.  The idea of maintaining a sense of nobility and class amongst such a background would prove impossible.  War finally destroyed the grand illusion.

Video ****

Simply breathtaking.  Criterion had initially intended this film to be their introductory offering on DVD, but to their credit, they took a full two years in their restoration effort, deciding correctly that it was better to do it right than to do it fast.  Four full stages of restoration were done, and the results are arguably the finest example of film restoration to date.  The film’s black and white photography is rich and beautiful, and surprisingly clean.  Images are sharp and crisp, blacks are solid, and the various tones of grayscale are well defined and presented.  There are occasional nicks and scratches…but not nearly at the level you might expect for such an old film, and one that was thought for a lengthy period of time to have been completely lost. 

Audio ***

The mono soundtrack is clean and clear, and the dialogue seems well presented…there are a few passages spoken in English that indicated that.  This overall presentation is enough to make any film student or historian weep with joy…it just doesn’t get any better.

Features ****

As usual, Criterion also packages their important film titles with a wealth of supplements.  The disc includes a terrific commentary by historian Peter Cowie, Renoir’s reissue trailer in which he explained the odd civility of his characters, a radio presentation of Grand Illusion receiving the New York Film Critics Award for best foreign language film featuring both Renoir and von Stroheim, a press book with plenty of information to peruse (including the discovery of the original negative), and Criterion’s restoration demonstration, which for this film, you definitely don’t want to miss.

Summary:

Grand Illusion is a cinema landmark and a treasured film…one that looks at war from unconventional angles.  It’s a masterpiece for both Renoir and his excellent cast and crew.  And Criterion, as usual, has gone the extra mile in offering this classic on a loaded DVD with an incredible restored transfer that must be seen to be believed.