Review by Michael Jacobson
Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim
Director: Jean Renoir
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 114 Minutes
Release Date: November 23, 1999
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.
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
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
Then, in one of cinema’s most memorable sequences,
Rauffenstein pleads for Boieldieu not to
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.