Jean Renoir’s 1937 black and white film, Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion), is often bandied about with Citizen Kane on the list of all time great films, but unlike that film, Grand Illusion was a commercial and critical sensation from its initial release. While both are arguably great films, neither is really within sniffing distance of any mythic top spot. Both have flaws, but Grand Illusion has more flaws than Citizen Kane and is clearly the lesser film, although it’s still certainly a very good film. It was written by Renoir- son of the famed Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, and Charles Spaak, based upon Renoir’s own adventures as a World War One Flyboy, and in many ways is well ahead of Hollywood films of that era, in terms of dealing with life and the way common people really spoke. In fact, it was one of the earliest films to have its characters all speak in their native tongues, and its influence upon later prison camp escape movies, such as The Great Escape, is manifest. That said, after a strong start, the film meanders for a while until the actual escape, and sort of meekly limps to a schmaltzy end. Simply put, Renoir had no real way to end the film memorably, and admittedly improvising the ending.
The film starts off with two French flyers, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), shot down on a reconnaissance mission by an aristocratic Prussian flyer, Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). Rauffenstein invites the captured duo to lunch before sending them to a POW camp for officers called Hallbach. Their grand meal plays upon Renoir’s theme that the world is divided horizontally, by classes, not vertically, by nationalities. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu know each other through affluent friends and acquaintances, and both wear monocles and white gloves. At their POW camp, the two men join in an escape plot through a tunnel, although Boeldieu is looked upon with distrust by the other officers who, like Maréchal, are from the lower classes. There are a number of scenes that depict relations between the prisoners and each other, as well as between the prisoners and camp guards. They even sing The Marseilles to snub the Germans in a performance, similar to what is done in Casablanca. Before they can escape, though, they are transferred to another POW camp, then another, then finally to a camp called Wintersborn- a mountain fortress, and cannot tell the English POWs who are taking their place that they have nearly finished the tunnel.
The commander of Wintersborn is an injured Rauffenstein who has, since their last meeting, been disabled in battle and reassigned. He has broken his spine, and been badly burnt, thus he now wears a neck brace and white gloves. He informs the pair that Wintersborn cannot be escaped from. There they reunite with the wealthy Viennese Jewish cook from their first camp, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). The trio plot an escape, but need one of them to cause a distraction. Boeldieu volunteers to be the distraction. After a roll call of the prisoners in the fortress courtyard, Boeldieu is missing, but plays cat and mouse with the guards, allowing the other two to escape by lowering themselves from a window with a rope. Rauffenstein and his men corner Boeldieu, and Rauffenstein orders him to give up. Boeldieu refuses, and Rauffenstein shoots him, aiming for the legs, but from a distance getting his fellow aristocrat through the stomach. Boeldieu dies of his wounds in bed, stating, ‘For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and I it’s a good way out,’ as Rauffenstein grieves, then symbolically cuts the flower head off a geranium he tended. Men like himself and Boeldieu, he knows, are no longer needed in the anarchic world of emergent democracies.
Maréchal and Rosenthal sojourn across the German farmland, headed toward Switzerland, en route to France. Rosenthal sprains his ankle, slowing them up, and they take refuge in the barn of, Elsa (Dita Parlo), a war widow, with a young daughter named Lotte. She nurses and feeds them. Maréchal falls in love with her, but he and Rosenthal leave for Switzerland, although he promises to return if he survives the rest of the war. A troop of German soldiers sees the two fugitives across a snow drifted valley, and fire at them, but let Maréchal and Rosenthal go, for they recognize that the two men are now in another country, whose boundaries are invisible.
The DVD, by The Criterion Collection, is the 114 minute version of the film, not the 95 minute version that was originally released in America in 1938, and was nominated not for a Best Foreign Picture Oscar, but was the first foreign language film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. When the Nazis occupied France they tried to destroy all copies of the film, under orders from Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, but a German officer rescued the film copies, which then fell into Russian hands with the fall of Berlin, and in 1957, Renoir tried piecing together a new cut of the film, but did so from various film stocks. This version is from a negative, and has been tremendously cleaned up, and looks very good. The film was Criterion’s first DVD release in 1999. The cinematography by Christian Matras is superb, with sweeping pans that capture many reactions to an incident, and the editing by Marguerite Renoir is even better, often cutting a scene before its expected end, to propel the viewer into the next moment. The film score is a bit heavyhanded, and has an almost Hollywoodish feel that contrasts with the very non-Hollywood screenplay.
The DVD bonus features include a solid commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie, originally recorded for laserdisc in 1987. Cowie is not a great commenter, but he is always informative, solid, and never dawdles on too much minutia. He gives some interesting tidbits on the careers of the main participants, although, naturally, the most interesting character of all is Stroheim, a Jew who made a career out of feigning German aristocratic roots. There is also Jean Renoir’s reissue trailer, where he explains, for several minutes, the civility of his characters, an essay on Renoir by Stroheim, a radio program of Grand Illusion receiving the New York Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Language Film- Renoir and Stroheim are there, a restoration demonstration, and an insert with an essay by Cowie. The lone downside is that, once again, no English dubbed soundtrack is included for those who want to experience ‘pure cinema’, and not read annoying white subtitles on a black and white film. If Criterion insists on cheaply subtitling the bulk of its releases, rather than dubbing them, are golden or other colored subtitles too much to ask for?
While Grand Illusion is not be the masterpiece that it is claimed to be, for its maudlin score, sketchy screenplay, and anomic ending are its greatest flaws, it is certainly a good film worth pondering. The thing that most people ponder about is the film’s title. What exactly is the grand, or great- in French, illusion? Some have asserted it’s the illusion of class, or nationality, that those things are real, or that war is noble, or can be gentlemanly. Some critics claim it was the idea that the Great War was The War To End All Wars, or that real love and happiness are possible in this world. All of these interpretations are correct, yet all of them are wrong, as the film is about none, yet all, of those things. It is like the elephant and seven blind men, and viewers will find their own meanings in the work and its title. Nor is it simply a film about escaping a prison camp, nor about jingoistic politics, nor even an essay on the collapse of the Old World Order of Europe. It is, perhaps, best viewed not as a record of what really was, but what should have been, and what might be. In this way it reminds me of the British film Things To Come, by William Cameron Menzies, based upon the H.G. Wells novel. While that film is set in the now anachronistic ‘distant future’ of the 21st Century, it has much in common with Grand Illusion, such as the ends of both films showing men slogging on through the coldness of life simply because they are men. Such commonalities, between men or works of art, are what give Grand Illusion its staying power, despite its manifest flaws. It may not be the deepest film ever made, and may not even be the best war film ever made, but it can properly be considered a classic, if only by some de facto ‘grandfather clause’ for such works of art. It may not be what Renoir intended, but intent in the arts means nothing, only reality does, and Grand Illusion’s is better than most.