Jean Renoir’s “La Grande Illusion,” a.k.a “Grand Illusion” (1937), is hailed by film critics as one of the greatest films ever made, also appearing in the all-time top-ten French films list. By the time, he made “La Grande Illusion,” Renoir had already directed twenty-one films, but “Grande Illusion” elevated his position as the top director, generating huge, instantaneous fame and success, even though he tasted success with his early sound films. Ranked at number 73 in a recent “Sight & Sound” poll, “Grand Illusion” also started the phase in Renoir’s career that made him a distinguished French director worldwide. His follow up to “Grande,” “The Rules of the Game” (1939), was very controversial at the time and it was banned by the French government. What’s more, in France his influence on the French New French Wave can be undoubtedly seen in the works of Jean Luc Goddard, Francois Truffaut, and many other directors. Indeed, it is true that to understand French cinema, one doesn’t have to go beyond the works of Renoir.
Over the years, I have seen “Grand Illusion” a number of times, and each time I find unique qualities about the film. In my previous viewings my focus was mainly on Jean Gabin’s character, but this time I mainly concentrated on understanding the film’s antiwar theme. Renoir’s style is simple and subtle, yet he succeeds in delivering an antiwar sentiment with deep emotions. The film’s tone is laid-back, flourishing smiles from the characters, and for a moment their behavior can be mistaken as a vacation trip for Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), and Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) when they arrive at a German prison. The Germans happily greet the characters, although with some restraint, and the central characters are fed proper food, and they mostly receive humane treatment at the facility. I use the word “vacation” to signify Renoir’s simplicity in presenting a more humane side of that can be interpreted as a tad too soft initially. But, that’s where Renoir is the master of building a lifelike drama, centering on a set of exciting characters trapped in realistic situations. Undeniably, the happy, carefree characters of “Grand Illusion” personify courage and compassion against the face of war.
Through the four primary characters, Renoir lays out the class structure in military, which becomes the main premise of the story line; he uses World War I (1914-1918) to highlight the various factions in the defense forces and the war ripping apart Europe. The film’s heartfelt moments are in the middle act when we see de Boeldieu and a German Captain, von Rauffenstein (Erich Von Stroheim), interacting in close quarters. Von Rauffenstein is an officer of the German Imperial Army, who was badly injured in the , but got promoted to officer and heads the prison facility at Wintersborn. Even though the film’s final act deals with a prison escape, the second act carries more emotional content with respect to its antiwar message.
Despite being a German, von Rauffenstein enforces French regulations at the prison facility, ensuring the Germans are not seen in a bad light. He makes his own rules, but at heart, he is presented as a gentleman to us. His interaction with de Boeldieu is interesting as the two men converse in multiple languages like German, French, and English, rapidly switching among the languages eloquently. Surely, these two men are well educated and well versed in the current state of affairs in Europe. Before arriving at Wintersborn, de Boeldieu and Maréchal were shifted from one prison to the other, and they share a bond that later helps Maréchal with his plans. We also meet Rosenthal, who is a wealthy Jew, always willing to share his food with the others. Later, Maréchal collaborates with Rosenthal to plan an escape, and gradually they develop a lifelong friendship.
After de Boeldieu arrives at Wintersborn, we learn a great deal about de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, and behind their military veil both men are shown as sensitive, caring, and fully aware of their respective circumstances. As the conversation progresses, both men appreciate their achievements, but they also realize that they have reached the finish line of their military careers. These men are bound by duty, torn apart by the war, and yet they reach out to each other because of a basic courtesy to other human beings. Even though both men are enemies, von Rauffenstein respects de Boeldieu, as both come from the same military ranks. Nonetheless, Renoir’s script exemplifies a conflict between the top-ranking officers and other military officials, and it also presents a sympathetic view on these men who carry out their duties.
As an antiwar film, “Grand Illusion” imparts a profound message on the effects of war. Renoir excludes actual battle scenes from the story, and, instead, shows the relationship between the characters, whose lives are ripped apart by the war. Each shot is carefully crafted, and we witness beautiful black-and-white cinematography throughout, the close-ups leaving a lasting impression in capturing the dislocation of the characters. Indeed, under the masterful direction of Jean Renoir, “La Grande Illusion” remains an emotionally satisfying tale of empathy, friendship, and death.
Lionsgate in partnership with Studio Canal presents “La Grande Illusion” in its original aspect of 1.37:1, encoded using an AVC codec. The 1080p transfer for this release is an improvement from the previous Criterion release on DVD. This is a pristine-looking transfer, as there are no signs of print damage, although white specs appear occasionally, though never distracting. The black-and-white images are sharp looking, with as increased clarity and depth as one would hope for from a 1080p transfer. The detail is never an issue in both the close-ups or long shots. The grain is retained that provides a nice film-like texture to the transfer. Contrast is set appropriately without sacrificing detail. Likewise, the shadow detail in low-light conditions is impressive, featuring solid blacks. Overall, this is a terrific transfer of a classic film.
Lionsgate has included the original mono soundtrack in the form of 2.0 French/ German DTS-HD Master Audio. The film is a dialogue-driven affair, and the dialogue comes out clean and clean. It appears the audio elements have been cleaned up, too, as I didn’t hear any crackling noises in the background. In addition, the dialogue is sampled appropriately, leading to sound that is consistently audible.
First, we get an interesting introduction by Ginette Vincendeau, who provides an overview on Renoir’s work and the film’s history. Up next, “The Original Negative: A Remarkable Story” takes us behind the story of film preservation at the Toulouse Film Library that holds the original negative of “La Grande Illusion.” We also get insights on the film’s history and the film library. This is essential viewing for anyone interested in understanding the world of film preservation.
Next, John Truby talks about” La Grande Illusion.” Turby, a script doctor, converses about the conflict presented by the protagonists and the great scenes from the film. Turby presents his thoughts on why he thinks “La Grande Illusion” is an important landmark in the history of cinema. Up next, in “Success and Controversy,” Olivier Curchod provides a synopsis of Renoir’s work, the controversy surrounding the film, and how the film was shown outside of France. He discusses Renoir’s framing style and the scenes from the film. Following this, the “Restoring La Grande Illusion” segment shows us side-by-side shot comparisons of shots before and after the restoration. Indeed, it’s a remarkable restoration in every way.
“La Grande Illusion” is a classic motion picture that will never be forgotten by anyone who loves cinema. The film’s core theme is universal in nature, and it resonates widely in today’s current situation as well. The film deals with compassion, respect, camaraderie, and an unflinching human spirit, even under the harsh circumstances of war The duty-bound men in “La Grande Illusion” are helplessly following orders, and even then they know the boundaries that exist. Humanity, after all, is an intrinsic quality within all human beings that cannot be suppressed, even in war. This Blu-ray edition features top-notch audio and video qualities, along with a slew of informative extras. Absolutely recommended.