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The strangely gentle vision of Jean Renoir,
This review is from: Grand Illusion (The Criterion Collection) (DVD)
I was absolutely floored when I first saw this movie about a year ago, at the house of a friend. I adore old war films (think "The Great Escape," "Stalag 17," and "Bridge on the River Kwai"), and thought I had the genre just about memorized until I saw this. It is an intense film, a grand one, but ultimately gentle. It takes place during World War I, which, the director once said, was "almost a war of gentlmen." The Nazis were two decades from gaining power, the nations of Europe enjoyed relative prosperity, and the upper classes ruled over all. In this setting, the necessary brutality of such films as I've previously mentioned seems out of place. Indeed, in the first few scenes, a German pilot who has shot down two French fliers invites them for lunch with his officers (!). This kind of respect, this illusion that war abides by certain rules and expectations, seems anachronostic and dated at first, in a post-Vietnam, post-9/11 world. But there is such hope, such desire for a world where the classes between nations are united, that the movie never seems jingoistic or naÔve, just optimistic.
The performances are exceptional; Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim, Pierre Fresnay--all seem to really live in their characters, not simply portray them. Von Stroheim, in particular, brings intense poignancy to the tragic figure of the German commandant von Rauffenstein, with his neck brace, stilted walk, and desperate yearning for companionship (which makes him turn to, of all people, his own enemy, Captain de Boeldieu, whom he shot down 18 months previous). Indeed, a lot of the film's message can be summed up in this character: his friendship with an enemy soldier, expressing Renoir's hope for a more peaceful, less divided world; his accoutrements of wealth and station, which hold him firmly in place, unable to change his views of the structure of the world, even as it shifts around him; and his belief in the eponymous "grand illusion" of the continued supremacy of the aristocrats over the working classes in a world scarred by war.
As a bit of a side note, this film, considering its age, is in startlingly pristine condition. The story of the film negative is told on the DVD, as part of the many supplements, so I won't bore you with it here. Suffice it to say that this version of this seminal film was lost for over 60 years before its discovery in the 1990s, resulting in its near-perfect condition today. The picture is as sharp as that of any contemporary film, crystal clear, and refreshingly free of dirt and tears that usually mar most older prints by virtue of constant use. This version is about the best you will find, as it has gone through a tedious, time-consuming restoration process that has given it this impressive sheen. My recommendation: Buy this DVD post haste.