****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B+
starring Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio
screenplay by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak
directed by Jean Renoir
by Bryant Frazer If you watch it cold, the opening scenes of La Grande Illusion (hereafter Grand Illusion) make for a confounding experience. The film opens in a French canteen, equipped with bar and phonograph player, where an aristocratic captain calls a working-class lieutenant to accompany him on a routine reconnaissance mission. One short dissolve later, without even the narrative pleasantry of a stock-footage flight over enemy territory, we're in a German canteen, equipped with bar and phonograph player, where an aristocratic captain announces that he's shot down an enemy plane. Another fade-out, and the Frenchmen are quickly welcomed at the German dinner table. The German captain even apologizes for the French lieutenant's broken arm.
As theatres of war go, this one looks exceptionally polite. On my first viewing of Grand Illusion, I found the dynamic baffling. These days, it puts me in mind of Dr. Strangelove's famous proscription against fighting in the war room. The difference is that the men in Kubrick's command centre are strategists, while those in Renoir's film are soldiers. Kubrick mocks the architects and executors of the Cold War; Renoir treats the officers of World War I with respect and affection.
Celebrating the good manners of the military at war may seem like an odd way for a pacifist filmmaker to make his case, but that's the bedrock foundation of Grand Illusion. Renoir is said to have taken the title from a 1910 book by Norman Angell, The Great Illusion, in which the author argued against the idea that nations benefit from war, claiming instead that wars are a social and economic drain. Grand Illusion grapples with warfare by relegating it to the background. Here's a war movie in which no battlefields are pictured and only a handful of shots are fired. Grand Illusion falls into that cycle of movies made in the years leading up to World War II--most notably Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Gance's 1938 version of J'accuse!--that were conceived partly in a quixotic attempt to pull Europe back from the brink of disaster. Renoir would later admit defeat on that score. Yet Grand Illusion is an instructive and deeply moving film that does more than merely confide its abhorrence of war.
The French officers are the Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and the Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay); the German aviator who captures them, Captain von Rauffenstein (a magnetic Eric von Stroheim), is a fusty old avatar of privilege. The two Frenchmen are quickly forwarded to a prison camp, where they're treated, mostly, with the respect normally conferred by their rank in their own country. The Germans pick their pockets, but nod explicitly and sympathetically to their roles as soldiers as they do so. It's nothing personal. Among the men Maréchal and Boeldieu meet here is Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jew born of a Danish mother and Polish father. When Maréchal and Boeldieu find themselves moved to captivity in an imposing stone castle for the film's third act, Rosenthal is with them, and von Rauffenstein--his body, ravaged by the violence of war, held together by hunks of metal that resemble a warrior's suit of armour--returns to the action as the affable commander of the high-security operation. There's a fourth act, too: A pair of prisoners manage to escape the fortress, and Grand Illusion's final section shows them traversing snowy southern Germany in an attempt to reach the invisible Swiss border before the German army catches up to them.
As always, Renoir works effortlessly in three dimensions, his mise-en-scène providing a master class in composition for the camera. Again and again, a scene will be framed tight, on just two men, before the camera tracks backwards to reveal more of his environment, as well as to bring more of the men around him into the picture. Renoir's framing is often playful, inviting us to imagine what we don't see. In one scene set in the first prison camp, one of the prisoners reveals to Maréchal that the group has been working for months to dig a tunnel escape route underneath the prison. The next shot depicts one of the German guards performing roll call at the end of the day. We don't see the prisoners (they would be situated, apparently, behind our heads), but we hear their voices. The German barks out "Boeldieu!" and is gently and hilariously corrected from off screen in a small voice: "Capitaine de Boeldieu." When the guard turns on his heel and stalks out through the door, which is quickly shut and locked behind him, one of the prisoners runs into view from off-camera right and props a wooden chair against the door--the digging is about to commence. Too bad it's all for naught, as the prisoners are uprooted right as they finish their work.
Perhaps the film's most famous scene shows the prisoners' performance of a French revue, including a group of Brits dressed in drag and singing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." Renoir chooses camera angles that put us there in the room to watch the show, not just framing the action on stage as though through a proscenium arch but shooting out over the audience from the boards. The scene runs uninterrupted for nearly four minutes before Maréchal bursts onto the stage with word that Fort Douaumont has been retaken by the French, an announcement Renoir shoots from the very back of the room, completing his depiction of the geographical spaces involved. In this shot, the assembled prisoners spontaneously rise from their seats, the stage glowing in the medium distance like a movie screen. In the next shot, one full minute in length, Renoir's camera tracks elegantly, unobtrusively, backwards as one of the Englishmen demands that the house band seated offstage-left now play the "Marseillaise," stripping off his wig and beginning to sing. As the camera moves across the front of the house, it reveals Maréchal and the rest of the players on stage taking up the tune and turning to face the German officers, who are seated offstage-right. The camera continues to pull back, capturing the Germans' stiff departure from behind, then finally pans to the left to reveal the audience members standing in profile, still singing. The camera pushes forward again, past the front row of the audience, moves in again on the band, and finally turns gracefully to the left, completing the unbroken shot by capturing the men in the audience head on, their mouths open wide with nationalist sentiment.
This is an undeniably stirring sequence that must have played like gangbusters to the French audience. I'd stop short of accusing Renoir of pandering, since the bulk of his argument weighs the relative insignificance of citizenship. When Maréchal and Boeldieu first break bread with the Germans, their affinities unite them across lines of class, not country or race. The two captains converse easily about a mutual acquaintance, Boeldieu's cousin Edmond, whom von Rauffenstein met in Germany, while Maréchal chats easily with a German with whom he shares a background as an engineer. Rosenthal, the Jew, endures some pointed wisecracks, though the men admire his generosity (Rosenthal's parents send parcels that keep the French inmates better fed than their German, English, and Russian counterparts) and he becomes one of the clear heroes of the film. Later, as the German soldiers search the prisoners' quarters for contraband, von Rauffenstein waves them away from de Boeldieu's bunk, instead asking the officer to swear that he's not up to any hanky-panky. De Boeldieu asks why von Rauffenstein doesn't trust the others, insisting their word is as good as his, but the German is unmoved. "Perhaps," he murmurs. Boeldieu gets special treatment at the castle; eventually, he is invited to the captain's quarters, where they converse in English, an indicator of their good breeding and extensive educations. Still, Boeldieu's allegiance is with his men, and he ultimately sacrifices himself to ensure the escape from the fortress of both Maréchal and his naturalized French friend Rosenthal.
What of the film's title, then? There is explicit reference to it in a conversation between Maréchal and another prisoner, the engineer, early on. Maréchal dismisses the very notion of escape, saying it will take too long to finish the tunnel. "The war will be over first," he says. "That's an illusion," is the reply. The specific illusion is, no doubt, the idea that the First World War would end all war. Another illusion may be that a lack of personal agency will be sorted out in the ordinary course of events. Certainly Grand Illusion argues that national boundaries are far less of a barrier to actual human relationships than class boundaries--the point is made explicitly in the closing scenes, in which the mechanic and the Jew are fired upon by German soldiers as they bound across a snowy field. As they pass an invisible threshold, the Germans lower their guns--the men are in Switzerland now, an arbitrary measure that renders them suddenly untouchable. What binds them as men is shared experience; at that moment their countries of origin, a question of great import to the Germans who pursued them to that magical boundary matter little to them.
With Grand Illusion, Renoir essentially called on the aristocracy to sacrifice itself in the name of a united, democratic France on the eve of World War II. It's true that he makes much of the easy relationship between the upper-class captains, but his fluid camerawork, which so ably frames two, three, or more men in conversation, is narrowed substantially as the two men have a smoke in von Rauffenstein's chamber. The conversation is assembled largely in a generic shot-reverse-shot mode, with each man isolated in a frame big enough to hold them both, easily. As they converse, something about Rauffenstein's rigidity rubs Boeldieu the wrong way. He insists that Maréchal and Rosenthal are good soldiers. Von Rauffenstein responds, in a friendly-enough fashion but in a voice dripping with sarcasm and contempt for the underclass, "Thanks to your French Revolution."
Well, the French aristocracy may have faded into obscurity, but certain sentiments remained popular. Louis-Ferdinand Céline launched a famous broadside against the film in his Bagatelles pour en massacre, a racist tract that criticized Grand Illusion as Semitic propaganda for the Popular Front that would allow the Jews to take over the world. It's true that, despite some unfortunate stereotyping of Rosenthal as the archetypal wealthy Jew, the movie clearly comes down on his side. Near the beginning of the fourth act, Maréchal, tired and hungry, declares that he's leaving the injured Rosenthal behind, depositing him on a convenient rock and marching off alone into the snow. Heartbroken, Rosenthal covers his despair by loudly singing the traditional French song "Il était un petit navire." Maréchal starts singing it as well, his voice carried aloft on a wave of anger and frustration. But before long, Maréchal--perhaps paying attention to the song's doom-laden lyrics, perhaps realizing it was that song that de Boeldieu played on the penny-whistle in order to cover his escape with his friend--returns to Rosenthal, who is now sobbing, despondent. They will stick it out together.
Working in the mid-1930s, Renoir didn't foresee the horror that awaited the Jews in Europe. Even if he had, he could hardly have invested his film with a more urgent plea for tolerance. Renoir's subsequent The Rules of the Game may be a more pointed, stinging indictment of the French aristocracy on the eve of World War II, but Grand Illusion is a masterpiece on similar terms. It's a bold, sophisticated, easily accessible--and finally failed--appeal to the better angels of human nature.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Grand Illusion occupies the prestigious spine-number "1" in the Criterion Collection, but due to rights issues, it lands on Blu-ray in a disc branded "La collection StudioCanal" that's being distributed by Alliance in Canada and Lionsgate stateside. While it's impossible to say what a Criterion BD based on the same digital remastering that yielded this transfer might have looked like, there's definitely not much to complain about here. From the opening titles on, this is a great-looking presentation with a hint of film grain spread evenly across the image. The vast majority of visible dirt, scratches, and other celluloid damage has been painstakingly fixed, leaving no apparent trace--the occasional vertical scratch near the far right edge of the screen notwithstanding. Contrast is excellent, with lots of detail visible in the low end of the image, although a couple of shots (those featuring electric light bulbs, for instance) seem to clip a bit in the highlights. Even in those shots, the image looks so good otherwise that it's hard to quibble. The 1.37:1, 1080p transfer is encoded to dual-layer at a bitrate that averages 27.7 Mbps.
Given the soundtrack's age, audio, too, is exceptional. The French-language 2.0 DTS-HD MA track (no English dub, in case you were curious) reproduces dialogue in crystal-clear fashion. Noise seems to have been reduced to palatable levels without digitizing room-tone out of existence, and while the scenes featuring music have a hint of shrillness towards the high end, that's typical of recordings from this era. Again, there's nothing worth complaining about.
Extras are high quality if not extensive. (Some material featured on the European Blu-ray release is missing from this North American counterpart, most notably Renoir's famous short The Little Match Girl but also a remembrance of the shoot by script supervisor Françoise Giroud that would be nice to see.) What we do get is a small raft of serious critical analysis and historical anecdata. Critic and historian Ginette Vincendeau contributes a 12-minute (standard-definition) segment offering the kind of off-the-cuff overview that suggests a deep familiarity with the film and its themes. Natacha Laurent from the Toulouse Film Library spends nearly as long discussing the history of the picture's negative, which is a lot more interesting than it probably sounds. Long story short, it ended up in Russia after the Soviet Red Army raided Berlin's Reichsfilmarchiv in 1945, where it had looted films including Grand Illusion, which the Germans themselves had stolen from Paris in 1940.
Meatier is Olivier Curchod's video commentary, dubbed "La Grande Illusion: Succès, Controverses" and running 23 minutes. He discusses the movie's reception and conflicting interpretations of it at some length, touching on Céline's reaction and debunking that of French historian Marc Ferro, who argued that the movie was actually anti-Semitic. A four-minute interview (poorly upres'd to HD) with screenwriting-software guru John Truby, identified on-screen as a "script doctor," is the biggest Blu-ray non sequitur I've seen lately. If Truby has special credentials that make him a go-to guy for insight on Renoir, fine, but they're not revealed here, and he's a poor match for the assembled academics.
The original trailer from 1937 is included in standard-definition, as is another piece Jean Renoir created to promote the film's 1958 reissue, which restored Grand Illusion to its original length following various cuts made over the years. Renoir himself appears here to discuss his background as a reconnaissance pilot in World War I and how the movie's scenario was inspired by stories he heard from his fellow soldiers. Finally, there's a three-and-a-half-minute demonstration of the digital remastering process using a split-screen wipe to show before-and-after imagery. It's not clear exactly what we're looking at, but I assume the "before" part of the image is the new 4K scan from the original camera negative before any digital work was done to it. At any rate, that portion of the frame is almost comically milky and low-contrast--the film never would have been transferred to disc looking like that. Criterion's DVD included a before-and-after comparison to the previous LaserDisc that really was instructive, and I'd like to see a side-by-side comparison of this Blu-ray to that DVD.
In total, this Blu-ray release offers a ton of big-picture context for the film (which is great) but relatively little analysis of Renoir's filmmaking techniques, which are remarkable. I got a lot out of Peter Cowie's thorough commentary for Criterion; there's so much erudition collected in this edition that it's a shame StudioCanal didn't have someone, somewhere sit down in a studio and tackle the whole film on scene-by-scene basis. Still, it's the movie that matters, and this HiDef version is mighty fine.