La Grande Illusion is a war film that is set miles from the front and contains no fighting. Instead it focuses on a motley group of characters for whom the war is over – POWs – and spins out a yarn that is funny, insightful and moving. It’s no wonder that the film is regarded as one of the best ever made.
Much of the film is set in a various prisoner of war camps where two French airmen end up after their reconnaissance plane gets shot down behind enemy lines. The men are the aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu who is a remnant of Europe’s old chivalric past and a dreadful snob, and the working class Lieutenant Maréchal. In the camps the men meet a wide cross-section of French society, with whom they form friendships and make efforts to escape.
After one escape attempt too many, they are sent to a Colditz-like castle presided over by the high-born German camp commandant von Rauffenstein. The two aristos meet and bond over shared memories of dinner at Maxims in Paris and the racing at Aintree, it is clear that they share more in common together than with their own countrymen.
These two officers are part of the old guard of the European aristocracy whose numbers and ideals were dealt a fatal blow on the killing fields of the First World War. Class, as much as war, is central to La Grande Illusion, but rather than a dull ideological exposition Renoir brings to life the conflicts between the classes and impending changes to the way things are run. He was a left-winger, but he is rather fond of the absurd foibles of these two individuals and the redundant class they represent.
The sheer quality of the actors has a lot to do with the power of the film. The proletarian Maréchal is played by Jean Gabin who was one of the biggest stars in France at the time and brings a subtle insolence to his role. Alec Guinness’s favourite actor, Pierre Fresnay plays Captain de Boeldieu with convincing patrician hauteur. Both Marcel Dalio and Dita Parlo put career-defining roles as the charming Jewish Lieutenant Rosenthal and a grief-stricken German woman, Elsa. But most magnetic of all, was Erich Von Stroheim as the quintessential Prussian, Captain von Rauffenstein.
Born in Austria, Von Stroheim emigrated to America in 1909 and after acting in a few films, directed his first movie in 1919. His subsequent silent movies were some of the key influences on Renoir’s early film making. In 1924 Renoir went to see Foolish Wives 10 times and said that it taught him that it might be possible to make films rooted in French tradition. His fifth film, Greed is regarded as one of the greatest silent films. Renoir was over-joyed when the producers managed to secure Von Stroheim for La Grande Illusion and they both re-wrote the script to extend the role of von Rauffenstein. The character they created is an understated comic tour-de-force. Hilariously stiff, his twitches and rippling facial expressions speak as eloquently as his clipped speeches.
Renoir conveys the boredom and frustrations of the POWs with great sympathy. Their attempts to escape, petty insubordination, and the effects of incarceration on their personalities are all vividly realised. Prison life is not all drudgery however and the men build a strong sense of camaraderie, often revolving around feasts held with the food parcels sent by Lieutenant Rosenthal’s wealthy family. It is typically French that throughout the story, the sharing of food lies at the heart of life. The final part of the film changes and opens out to include the wider world – and the tragedy of war – outside the prison camps and the lives of soldiers. The tone also changes from being almost light-hearted to being much sombre and reflective.
By the end of La Grande Illusion we have been reminded that humanity shares more in common than the politicians who send us to war would have us believe. But although the film has a message, it is more entertaining than axe-grinding, and its characters live in the memory long after the credits roll. This is a great film.
The film is released in cinemas on 6th April and will be out on DVD and Blu-Ray on 23rd April, 2012.
The new 4k restoration
This edition of La Grand Illusion has been newly restored from the original nitrate negative using 21st Century technology. The 4k restoration by Studiocanal and Toulouse Cinémathèque has especially benefited the sound quality.
We are very lucky that La Grande Illusion has made it this far, the journey to this restoration has been long and hard. The problems started when the censors cut a few scenes cut from the initial print, specifically the references to STDs among the army were too racy and subversive. However, the film was first show at the Marivaux cinema on 8th June, 1937 and won the prize for Artistic Contribution at the Venice Film Festival that year. Of course it was already banned in Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, but was then also banned in France when the Germans invaded.
The original print was thought destroyed in an Allied bombing raid, but actually had been transported to Berlin where the Russians arrived in 1945 and carted it back to Moscow. Renoir tried to release the film again in 1946, but with the print missing, presumed lost, he had to make do with a much shortened version which had a much smaller role for Elsa (Dita Parlo) and with scenes sympathetic to the Germans cut out. Still, in 1958 Renoir managed to issue a ‘restored’ version taken from French, German and American copies.
In 1965 Toulouse Cinemateque joined the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), which allowed for correspondence with the Moscow archive – where it turned out the original print had been hiding. Somehow they managed to get the film returned to France. It was this version, with guidance from Renoir’s ’58 version that the French Film Archive of CNC restored in 1997. This current release uses the latest 4k sound and vision from the original nitrate negative.
Clips from La Grande Illusion
Here are some clips from La Grande Illusion to give you a flavour of the film:
In which the POWs try to tunnel out of their camp (said to be an influence on The Great Escape).
In which the POWs discuss their motives for fighting and their pasts.
In which Von Rauffenstein tries to prevent his friend and enemy, De Boldieu, from escaping.