GRAND ILLUSION (1937)


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It’s been seventy-five years since Jean Renoir’s controversial film Grand Illusion was made (Goebbels had the film’s print seized by the Germans when they occupied France and called Jean Renoir Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1).  It is the first foreign language movie ever nominated for best film at the Academy Awards and still ranks high on many critics lists of greatest films every made.  The title refers to the idea (ironic) that war is absurd and that another world war was not going to happen.  The granddaddy of all prison escape films, it revolves around four officers during World War I:  Lieutenant Marachel (Jean Gabin, in one of his greatest performances), who represents the working class; the Jewish Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio, who you will recognize as the apologetic croupier in Casablanca), who represents the rising capitalist class; Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), who represents the French aristocracy; and Captain von Rauffenstein (played by the great director Erich von Stroheim), who represents the German counterpart to Boeldieu.  Though the story is essentially a war film (or prisoner of war film), it’s more about the idea that the aristocracy, who have ruled the world for so long, no longer have a place in society.  But by the Great War, they were quickly losing any reason for existence and were being replaced.  And the melancholy Boeldieu, who has accepted this fact, is willing to sacrifice his life in order to help Marachel and Rosenthal, the true inheritors of the future, escape, an idea that von Rauffenstein simply can’t comprehend.  At least, this is what the first half is about.  And here I have to say that I am not quite the fan of the movie as others are.  It’s a great film, but for me, its greatness lies in this first half, in this symbolic exchange of power between the two classes.  The scenes in the prison of war facilities are deeply moving and powerful.  There is a moment that is hard to believe wasn’t stolen for the aforesaid Casablanca (but hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best) in which, during a theatrical show the prisoners are putting on, Marachel leads them all in singing the Marseilles when they hear of a French victory (though there is an added irony here in that the victory is short lived).  It’s a scene so full of emotion, it makes one want to cry (if not join in singing).  This is soon followed by perhaps the most famous scene in the movie, where Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein have a private moment and the Frenchman bravely tells his German counterpart that their times has come, but von Rauffenstein can’t conceive that their rightful place will be superceded by a farmer and a Jew.  The second half dramatizes Marachel and Rosenthal’s escape and their attempt to reach Switzerland.  It’s also the part of the story that Renoir can do little to make new or insightful.  It’s pretty routine and includes a major section where the two are hidden by a German widow on her farm and Marachel shares her bed (what prison escape story can be complete without a romantic interlude).  I was joking with my friend and said that it brought to mind the lines in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travel where the producers don’t want Joel McCrae’s director to go overboard with the seriousness of his next project: “But with a little bit of sex in it” “A little, but I don’t want to stress it”.  I thought maybe Renoir stressed it a bit too much. But for the record, the restoration is breathtaking.  It’s in beautiful black and white and in pristine condition.  And this is one of the great movies, people.  You must see it.
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