I took a film class with Tom Gale back at ODU in the dim, dark ’70s, but I don’t remember seeing this film there. Nevertheless, Tom has fond memories of it, and has had fun with the poster. Here’s #3 in Tom’s Christmas poster parodies.
For most of us there are certain movies that you get to see only if you frequent thoughtful repertory movie theaters, happen to be a movie history geek, or take a couple of film appreciation courses at the local community college. I saw “The Grand Illusion” while at Old Dominion University in the same film class where I saw “The Battleship Potemkin”, Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona”, “Women in Love” and a host of other unforgettable examples film as art. The very fact that the common term for a film work is the diminutive “movie”, (a way of denigrating the status of something by making it sound childish and unimportant, like “talkie” or “techie”), suggests that on average we look to the cinema for light escapism rather than meaningful contemplation. Of course there is not a thing wrong with great mindless entertainment as evidenced by the number of action and comedy flicks we have in our home DVD collection. I like Bruce Willis too! But it is a good practice every now and again to choose a film for an experience that involves us in the very best that cinema as an art form can achieve; make us ponder a larger reality and teach us something about ourselves.
Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” is a film that not only earns its reputation as serious cinema, but exists in modern form as an example of miraculous restoration luck. The original negative, long considered lost to the destruction of World War Two, was still missing when Renoir himself helped remaster the film in the 50’s using available prints. It was not until a film exchange between Russia and France in the mid-60’s did the original finally surface and was available to use for the most current Criterion remastering. To watch the film in its contemporary format is to see it, as many were not able to, in as close to its original visual condition as possible. If ever there was an argument for having a large screen TV, this is a great one.
The poster, by the way, is not one of the few usually associated with the film. I think it is from an Italian release of the film, but it is, in my opinion, the best of the posters, graphically. Without this poster version, “The Grand Illusion” might have been overlooked for inclusion in this series. That would have been a shame. Please enjoy the review below found on the Rotten Tomatoes film review site where it enjoys a 97% fresh rating from reviewers and a 93% from viewers like you and me.
Perhaps this would make a perfect holiday gift for that special, thoughtful person in your life. Who says a date movie has to be about romance?
“Perhaps the greatest anti-war film ever made.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Jean Renoir’s (“The Rules of the Game”) subdued masterpiece is perhaps the greatest anti-war film ever made (some might prefer All Quiet on the Western Front). Uncannily, “Illusion” never showed one battle scene as it reflects on the first Great War in Europe. The first foreign film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar is framed around a simple WW1 POW escape narrative, but it suggests a more careful look at how it’s also a pointed study of how upper class backgrounds, even in warring armies, offers a stronger bond of sympathy than even nationality. This is brought out through the deep regard the German commandant, Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), had for his captive, the senior French officer, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), also an aristocrat and career professional military man.
The film offers a call for universal brotherhood and a plea for sanity in a world that doesn’t know how to settle things without going to war. There never has been a time of a lasting peace. The Grand Illusion title, one that can mean many things, most likely is derived from the illusionary nature of the war’s slogan that this was “The War to End All Wars.” It’s based on a true story of men Renoir knew when he was in the French Resistance, who told him of their escapes.
Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels considered this film cinematic enemy number one, and tried to destroy all copies. Fortunately he didn’t succeed. The negative was taken during the German occupation of France in WWII and retaken when the Red Army seized Berlin. The Reds stored it in a hidden archive; several prints over the years were released. But it wasn’t until recently that it was put together as it was originally intended by Michel Rocher and Brigitte Dutray, who upgraded it through use of modern technology. Criterion put out a fine version on DVD. The version I saw was the updated one, which was recently on TCM.
In 1916 French pilot Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is ordered by his superior, Captain de Boeldieu, to fly with him on a reconnaissance mission to get aerial photos. They are shot down and captured by Captain von Rauffenstein and invited by him to a hospitable dinner. They are later transferred to a POW camp for officers in Germany. There they meet Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), whose nouveau riche banking family sends him regularly food packages which he graciously shares with the others. The French prisoners are digging a hole for the last few months to escape. For relaxation they are allowed to put on a talent show and wear dresses. When Maréchal announces that the French captured the city of Douaumont, the prisoners take a break from their performances and in a grand patriotic gesture stand at attention and sing with pride “The Marseillaise.” Afterwards Maréchal tries to escape and is brought back to solitary; he’s released in time to be told that all the French officers are being transferred to another camp. When he tries to tell the British replacements about the tunnel, they don’t understand French.
The narrative picks up with Maréchal and Boeldieu, after many escape attempts in different POW camps, transferred to a camp where Rauffenstein is the commandant. He has been severely wounded in battle and can no longer be in the front, but to serve his country he reluctantly takes this new assignment he dismisses in confidence to Boeldieu as being only a policeman’s job. Rauffenstein is so fond of Boeldieu that he rooms him away from the other prisoners in his medieval castle and provides him companionship by also moving in Maréchal and Rosenthal. The later, Rauffenstein says, so they can eat properly. Rauffenstein treats de Boeldieu’s at his word, because he is an aristocrat, but doesn’t have the same respect for the working class auto mechanic Maréchal or the Jew Rosenthal.
The trio hide a rope and scheme to escape, but Boeldieu tells Maréchal and Rosenthal he will stay behind and cover for them because the plan would not be possible for all three to escape together. During the escape the noble Boeldieu is shot by Rauffenstein, as he offers himself up as a sacrifice so the two could escape. Before he dies Boeldieu forgives Rauffenstein, saying he did his duty and he would have done the same thing if things were reversed. The war is seen as a changing view of the social order where, according to the German aristocrat, the working class man and the dirty Jew return to freedom while the aristocrat will not because he’s a member of a dying breed.
During their escape through the German wintry countryside, the two desperate and hungry men stumble upon an isolated farmhouse of a German war widow, whose hubby was killed in Verdun, Elsa (Dita Parlo) and her young daughter Lotte. Even though they don’t speak the same language Elsa and Maréchal fall in love, and make plans to meet after the war if he survives. The men in the last scene make it to safety in neutral Switzerland by crossing the invisible border in a mountain covered with snow.
REVIEWED ON 4/17/2005 GRADE: A+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ
|CLICK TO ENLARGE