Filmed during 1936 and 1937 Jean Renoir’s La Grand Illusion, a contemplation on the subject of war set during World War I was, of course, being made as a new era of warfare and worldwide atrocities were swiftly approaching. Celebrating its 75th anniversary in a restored cinematic and Blu-ray release, now is the perfect time to re-evaluate the work. The perceptions of humanity distilled within a story that remains both relevant and powerful, means that, even today, it can still be regarded as work of art. A war film that can be viewed by any audience.
In World War I, French pilots Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) have been captured by German forces. Many of their comrades have died and they are facing incarceration as prisoners of war. Partly responsible for their capture is le captaine von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stronheim), an honourable man who wishes to follow what he feels are clearly defined rules of war and capture, who sends them on to their prisoner camp. The soldiers attempt to escape by implementing a number of plans, coupled with other ways of biding their time whilst in prison – putting on a good show or gardening. If they are caught escaping the punishment is severe, sometimes fatal; a savagery that only seems to be increasing as the war progresses ever onwards. The pair’s daring escape attempts eventually result in them being imprisoned an apparently impenetrable fortress. The commander in charge? Von Rauffenstein.
The premise is deceptively basic but the strength of the film lies with broad themes it covers and the depth of characterisation. Like its characters it is both popularist and intellectual, it acknowledges nationality and class distinctions but embraces these differences. The story drifts between scenes as we follow the characters through their war. One of the most poignant scenes that illustrates the camaraderie between the prisoners occurs when they decide to put on a show. Whether the format be music-hall (the British soldiers do a tremendous drag routine) or comedy, it helps to keep up the spirits. Indeed it is the humour and the interaction between that characters that works so well because the process of doing the show is a coping mechanism, an attempt to retain some form of normality. And when – mid revue – news of France’s capture of Fort Douaumont results in the impromptu singing of ‘La Marseillaise’, the strength of the soldiers’ solidarity really shines through. This is a First World War film where we don’t see trenches or the gut-wrenching atrocities, we see the human spirit depicted from an entirely different perspective.
By placing these constructed set-pieces together with external scenes that often use single takes, Renoir creates a natural realism to proceedings that enhances the believability of the characters and their story. A combination of expectations, orders and the rules of war strive to remove the compassion from those that have found themselves engaged in it. But the film’s strongest aspect is the way that, even though it does not deeply define its intellectual considerations, the over-riding concern is that the opposing sides both have a sense of humanity. Von Rauffenstein, is a case in point. He is a German officer who appreciates war codes even amidst the savagery and atrocity that warfare inevitably entails. We learn that he too has suffered serious injury during the conflict and eventually finds himself becoming commander of the officers’ prisoner of war camp, a gothic tower atop a hill, an impenetrable schloss for those imprisoned. But he is a man of honour and treats his prisoners with respect, despite their persistent attempts to escape.
‘Politeness, even chivalry, does not excuse massacre,’ as Jean Renoir rightly declares in his introduction to the publication of his screenplay (translation 1968) which he adapted from a story that ‘is absolutely true and was told to me by some of my comrades in the war.’ Indeed it is the details, the minor scenes or sideline stories that not only enhance the realism but also the audience’s engagement with the story. It is also highly influential and there are a number of war films – most notably The Great Escape and Casablanca – that owe a debt to La Grand Illusion. Classically constructed and exquisitely filmed, acted and scripted, it remains as compelling and moving as it was ever conceived to be. Essential (re)viewing.
The restored print is as sharp as you would wish to see, crisp and clear. Outside of the welcome cinema reissue (demand that your local cinema screens it!), the imminent DVD and Blu-Ray releases provide welcome extras including other short Renoir works. Highly recommended in any format.