Directed by Jean Renoir
Réalisations d’Art Cinématographique
France, 114 minutes
Starring Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim
The phrase greatest film of all time gets thrown around more like a hot potato that a series of words with a prestigious meaning. Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion is a film that has had this title bestowed on it many times and it deserves it.
La Grande Illusion is, on its face, a World War I prison escape movie – at least for the first two-thirds. It begins after Captain von Rauffenstein, played by Erich von Stroheim, shoots down a few French pilots, including the working class Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay). Rauffenstein announces their capture and then invites them to a dinner. Immediately, Renoir hits upon major theme of the movie – class distinctions are more important than nationalities. The German soldiers have a friendly chat with Marechal; one even helps him cut up his meat because his arm is injured. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu quickly realize they are on the same level and this comes to a head with their fantastic discussion in the middle of the film.
Renoir’s film is anti-war of the highest degree. It can be seen that he almost can’t justify the thought that human beings could possibly want to kill each other over (and because of) nationalities. Take the entire last sequence with Elsa (Dita Parlo), a German girl that Marechal and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish aristocrat that Marechal escaped with. These three characters could not be more different, but because they are of the same class, they befriend each other (more so Elsa and Marechal who fall in love). They should be fighting each other, but their similarities in class come before their differences in nationality. It is interesting that while Boeldieu and Rauffenstein see their similarities immediately, their relationship ends up with one shooting the other after Boeldieu provides the distractions for Marechal’s escape. Meanwhile, Marechal fails to see the similarities between himself and Elsa until they spend time together. When they do, neither of these characters are killed. This means that the aristocrats, ultimately, will side with their nationalities rather than their fellow man in the end. The working class, while initially hesitant, can learn to appreciate their fellow man, especially those in similar situations.
Criterion released the film on DVD back in 1999. Originally it was going to be their first DVD release and just a port of their laserdisc. However, a new restoration was done and the disc was delayed by nearly two years. Still, they reserved spine #1 for it, although the artwork was updated to the ‘line’ style that was used until 2005 and more features were added. Peter Cowie’s great commentary was on the laserdisc. The only video features are a short ‘trailer’ where Renoir discusses the film and his war experiences (he did fight in WWI) and a restoration demonstration. Both are definitely worth checking out. There’s also a radio presentation with von Stroheim and Renoir accepting the 1938 Best Foreign Film honor from the New York Film Critics Awards. Finally, there are text excerpts from the press book issued for the film’s re-release. The artwork is pretty standard early Criterion, using a poster as the cover and including just a three-page insert with an essay by Cowie.
The Verdict: This is a film that all buffs need to at least see, but that’s getting harder and harder. Criterion was forced by StudioCanal, the company that owns distribution rights for the film, to bring it out of print early this year. That’s when I made sure I grabbed it as soon as I could. You can still find plenty of copies on eBay for some pretty fair prices and the Essential Art House version, which includes none of the supplements, is still available at the Criterion site. Whichever you choose, just make sure that you see this film before it becomes really impossible.