La Grand Illusion, Blu-ray (1937/2012)
Cast: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim
Director: Jean Renoir
Studio: StudioCanal/Lionsgate [7/31/12]
Video: 1.37:1 B&W 1080p HD
Music: Joseph Kosma
Audio: French, German, English DTS-HD MA stereo, PCM mono
Subtitles: English, German
Extras: “La Grande Illusion: Success, Controversy” by Jean Renoir specialist; “The Original Negative;” “La Grande Illusion” intro by film critic Ginette Vincendeau; John Truby film presentation; Trailers from 1937 & 1958; Restoration of La Grande Illusion
Length: 113 minutes
First, it should be mentioned that although with all the bonus extras and the perfect job of restoration—making this film look like it was shot last week—this is not a Criterion Collection release. They did have an earlier DVD release of La Grand Illusion, and it included an introduction by Jean Renoir (the son of the great impressionist painter) plus some audio-only material of Renoir and von Stroheim receiving an award for it as the Best Foreign Film of 1938, but that one is currently out of print.
The film’s title suggests several interpretations: The idea that this would be the only World War, that (in 1914) the war would soon be over, that the war was between the Germans and the French when the connections between the aristocracy of both countries was much stronger than their country’s animosities. It was also made at a time when all intelligent people realized another world conflict was surely in the works soon.
Le Grand Illusion has been faulted for having no scenes of either the war in the air or the hell of the trench warfare. But it mainly concentrated on the absurdity of war and the ending of the European aristocratic system. The French officers who are captured by the Germans after a reconnaissance into German territory, are shown the greatest respect, and even invited to dinner with the German officers of the POW camp. The aristocratic French prisoner played by Pierre Fresnay had been acquainted earlier with the prison warden played by the famous German silent film director Erich von Stroheim. The warden has been seriously injured in the war and this is the only job in which he can serve his country. Both upper-class men realize this war is ending their special place in society. The Jean Gabin character represents the working class man, and the compatriot with whom he escapes in the end is Jewish and represents the nuevo riche. Although the aristocratic French officer feels closest to the German warden, in the end he sacrifices himself to ensure that the two lower-class men can successfully escape. In fact, the latter part of the film turns into a prison camp escape story. The way the anti-Semitism endured by the Jewish character is handled is also interesting.
Renoir is known for his great sense of humanity in all his films, and La Grande Illusion is no exception. There are some sections that fall a bit flat, such as the variety show (including drag roles) put on by the French and English prisoners, which is stopped for them to all sing La Marsellaise in front of the German officers when it is reported the French have re-taken a fort from the Germans. Also, the sudden romance between the Gabin character and the German widow who takes the two in is had to believe.
Still, it is a unique anti-war film and one can readily understand why the Nazis and Italian fascists prohibited its showing during WWII.
If any recording is essential to the genre, this is it.