Released in 1937, La Grande Illusion was the first international hit for filmmaker Jean Renoir, finding acclaim both in Europe and America, where it was the first-ever foreign film to be nominated for a “Best Picture” Academy Award.
La Grande Illusion centers around a group of French soliders captured by the Germans during World War I. Their commanding officer is Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a man of high rank and high breed. But it’s Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) who becomes the focal point of their resistence effort, and becomes involved with and later leads a series of escape attempts from the German captors. Boldieu does aid his men in their attempts, but he also becomes chummy with the head German officer, Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim), who finds in the French captain a cultured companion, and views him as a welcome relief from even his own low-rent German underlings. Although relieved to have friendly captors, it begins to strike Boldieu as odd that their relationship should somehow take precedence over the nationalistic rift being played out. The dichotomy between Boeldieu’s relationship with his countrymen and that of his enemy officer (especially in contrast to the relationship between the other French soldiers versus their captors) begins to lay the psychological groundwork for how we can become separated beyond just national boundary lines.
The great illusion referenced in the movie’s title is the idea that this will be a quick war, and that when it ends people will be able to go back to their lives as usual. Or at least that’s the illusion the soldiers relate to each other. The movie itself more discreetly shows the illusion – or at the very least, another illusion – to be the notion that nationalism and political ideology are the main things that separate men into tribes, when actually it’s more sharply drawn along lines of class. The relationship between Captain de Boeldieu and Captain von Rauffenstein is one of elitist fraternity, where commonality is found in a shared priority of high breeding and cultured interests. Likewise, the relationship between Boeldieu and his men should be stronger by virtue of their French nationalism, but there are several references given that indicate more distrust from the soldiers to Boeldieu than there is from Rauffenstein.
We further see culture and class boundaries shifting with the growing collusion between Maréchal and the Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). Although Rosenthal is a man of means, he finds he still has to overcome some national prejudices towards his Jewish heritage. His class, therefore, is stationed closer to the working trade than it is that of Boeldieu and Rauffenstein. After all, Rosenthal’s family wealth is self-made, as opposed to being the result of lineage and inheritance. Rosenthal and Maréchal eventually become the driving forces behind one final escape attempt, and underpin once again the film’s thesis of class separation – or station isolation – uniting and dividing over all.
These tensions and alliances are allowed to play out in more or less relaxed conversation, as the relationship between captors and prisoners is overall pretty cordial. As long as the prisoners don’t actively defy their daily orders or attempt escape, they are allowed days of relative calm. We see this as the French prisoners routinely receive care packages from back home, or with the freedom to pursue hobbies, including staging an elaborate vaudeville night where even the German officers are invited. Even within this relaxed atmosphere, the underlying desire for true freedom makes this relative freedom feel like a hollow benefit. At one point when Maréchal is in solitary confinement, he continually and violently rebuffs the kind gestures of his guard to make his time go by more pleasantly, because he says he just needs to hear the voice of his own people in order to feel civilized.
If this overly-relaxed attitude between the French and Germans, especially in the roles of prisoners and captors, respectively, seems odd today, it was also an issue of critique during the film’s re-release in 1958. By that time the after-effects of the Nazi regime were still very fresh throughout Europe, and the film ignited new controversy for its apparent sympathy towards the German military, and the convivial relationships between the two groups of soldiers. However, it’s important to remember that the film was only ever to be viewed in light of the first World War. In fact, the details of the film were taken from first-person accounts of a military friend of Renoir’s, who become the basis for the character of Maréchal. And although it’s perhaps too easy to think of these attitudes as something specific to that war, or to those countries, there seem to be more subtle messages at work. La Grande Illusion is a quietly subversive pacifist tale, with numerous calls to be as watchful for the enemy within (growing resentment and separation by class) as much as without.
Video / Audio
There’s not much to say about the video quality here other than to use the word “pristine.” This is handsome restoration work at every turn. Not only have any print blemishes and debris been reduced to nothing, but the overall richness and depth of contrast in the black and white transfer is a joy to behold. In fact, the main thing that shines in the restoration demo included in the bonus section is how much life is brought to the coloring and contrast of the print. It’s as if a layer of faded wear has simply been lifted off, revealing an original version seemingly untouched by time. Only a couple of very slight blemishes can be detected for the eagle-eyed, but they’re so minuscule as to hardly be worth mentioning.
The audio likewise receives a clean restoration, although admittedly to a lesser degree. Not a lesser quality of work involved, but simply a less impressive end result than that of the visuals. The original French (and German, with some English) LPCM 1.0 audio track is ever stable and balanced. It’s unfortunate that it’s just a bit thin, but that could very well be due to the nature of the original version, which as the bonus material points out, we’re lucky to have at all. Also, some of the scenes show some noticeable background hiss, although they mainly seem to involve those with music, and can be heard most noticeably in transitions to more quiet, dialogue-only scenes, which are surprisingly clean. But taking everything else into consideration, it’s still a rather nice audio track from the period.
This release opts for more and shorter supplemental items from various experts, as opposed to putting them all into a larger, edited featurette. The first is a film introduction by Ginette Vincendeau (HD, 12:14) who gives an overview of the film, some notes on its history, and also its impact on both Renoir and world cinema. “The Original Negative” (HD, 11:59) features Natacha Laurent and recounts the history of the film’s revisions and prints, and the process of locating and restoring the version presented here.
“La Grande Illusion: Success, Controversy” (HD, 23:21) features Jean Renoir specialist Olivier Churchod, contrasting some of the praise as well as harsh criticism that the film received during its release and re-release, and then going on to discuss its more lasting impact. A brief interview with film critic John Truby (HD, 4:28) is also included, where he shares his view on the continuing influence of La Grande Illusion. There are two trailers included for the 1937 and 1958 releases of the film (HD, 4:08 and 5:35, respectively) with the latter being a quite interesting introduction to the film by Renoir himself. Finally, a short restoration demo (HD, 3:23) rounds out the special features.
La Grande Illusion is a classic of both French and world cinema, and has now received a loving and exemplary restoration. Although the extra supplements aren’t exactly overflowing, this is certainly a worthwhile package for anyone interested in one of the French master’s most popular films. Very recommended