Monday, June 4


Can you say too much about La Grande Illusion?  When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, it was propaganda minister Josef Goebbels #1 mission to see every copy of this film burnt to ash.  You really have to hand it to the Nazis.  They were fucking evil.  This movie only contains two major German characters, and they are both heavily sympathetic.  Why did the Nazis want it destroyed so badly?  To put it in the kind of simple terms a Nazi could appreciate, this film is humanity, and the Nazis, and all those that would destroy art or knowledge, are inhumanity.

If that's not the greatest fucking introduction a movie could ever receive, we can probably still fill out another paragraph with awe-inspiring detail.  Filmmakers as diverse as Orson Welles to Woody Allen have called it perhaps the greatest film ever made, and Martin Scorsese said of it's 75th anniversary digital restoration "a magnificent restoration we should all be grateful for."  Amen Marty.  When the film first opened in the US in 1938, FDR raved about it after a private screening and it played in New York for 26 weeks.

How much more of an introduction could a film have?  Lets see.  When it comes to film, the Criterion Collection is the closest thing you can come to Canon.  Their mission statement is worth quoting verbatim:

"Since 1984, the Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films, has been dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements. Over the years, as we moved from laserdisc to DVD, Blu-ray disc, and online streaming, we’ve seen a lot of things change, but one thing has remained constant: our commitment to publishing the defining moments of cinema for a wider and wider audience. The foundation of the collection is the work of such masters of cinema as Renoir, Godard, Kurosawa, Cocteau, Fellini, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Hitchcock, Fuller, Lean, Kubrick, Lang, Sturges, Dreyer, Eisenstein, Ozu, Sirk, Buñuel, Powell and Pressburger. Each film is presented uncut, in its original aspect ratio, as its maker intended it to be seen. Every time we start work on a film, we track down the best available film elements in the world, use state-of-the-art telecine equipment and a select few colorists capable of meeting our rigorous standards, then take time during the film-to-video digital transfer to create the most pristine possible image and sound. Whenever possible, we work with directors and cinematographers to ensure that the look of our releases does justice to their intentions. Our supplements enable viewers to appreciate Criterion films in context, through audio commentaries by filmmakers and scholars, restored director’s cuts, deleted scenes, documentaries, shooting scripts, early shorts, and storyboards. To date, more than 150 filmmakers have made our library of Director Approved DVDs, Blu-ray discs, and laserdiscs the most significant archive of contemporary filmmaking available to the home viewer."

I've reviewed a number of their films, own a few more, have seen a great deal, and hope to see all of them some day.  One of their films I own is Seven Samurai, the oft-reimagined classic, which was the 2nd film they ever released (and you'll notice Kurosawa is third on their list of directors above).  But the first film they released, and from the first director on their list, is Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion from 1937.  Now long out of print, perhaps the 75th Anniversary restoration will be enough to motivate another release, maybe even on Blu-Ray this time.

But what of the film itself?  It's a war movie, with no war, and it doesn't seem to fall on either end of the conventional 'war movie' spectrum: it's not triumphant, nor depressing.  It's a well-observed dark comedy for much of it's running time (I might be the only one who thinks this) and eventually concludes with scenes of heartfelt optimism before a note-perfect ending.  Its one of a kind.

But seriously, what happens in this damned movie?  Two French soldiers, a mechanic turned officer named Maréchal and an aristocrat turned officer named Boeldieu, are shot down and captured by a German aristocrat turned officer named von Rauffenstein.  They become part of a band of prisoners who move through a series of prison camps, including one run by the same man who shot them down after a later crash renders him unfit for combat duty.  After numerous failed attempts, two of the men manage to escape and seek refuge in the countryside with a German woman named Elsa whose husband and brothers were all killed in various battles.

That simple description certainly sells the film short.  This film looks at topics that Nazis didn't even want people knowing were topics.  Did the death of the Aristocracy change warfare or vice versa?  Are people most closely bound by nationality, or class?  The title is a provocation as well.  Suggesting that anything depicted in this film could be called an 'illusion' was certainly a little bit shocking, then and now.

The performances very grounded and naturalistic, at least for the central players, and give the film a kind of timelessness that escapes other films.  Jean Gabin as the lead gives a star-making performance (to the US) as the pure embodiment of skirt-chasing, theater-eschewing, working class Frenchness.  Dita Parlo is 2nd billed in the film, but Elsa doesn't show up until 90 minutes in and the film is only 114 minutes long; but she still manages to give a great performance as the conflicted woman, who shows genuine pity to the wounded escaped POWs she finds in her barn, and who (somewhat) shields her contempt when she lists the various German successes that killed each of her brothers.

But Eric von Stroheim as von Rauffenstein is the real immortal performance.  After he shoots down a plane, he asks the recuse party to check if the men are officers so he can invite them to dinner.  He is a man from a different time.  His manners and monocle would make him a subject for mockery in almost any other situation, but here he is a majestic beast, a man out of time, still trying to follow rules that nobody cares about anymore.  His distinctive look, completed when he acquires a back brace so cumbersome that it puckers up around his chin, has been burned into the world subconscious by this point.

Like I mentioned before, it's telling that the Nazis wanted to destroy this film even though it depicts Germans so sympathetically.  It's indicative of its historical value and its subject matter but I also think, if you examine the kind of art that the Nazis were fans of, that their condemnation is proof positive of its overall quality.  This is the film so good that the Nazis didn't want you to see it.  Actually, this is the film so good that the Nazis didn't want it to exist.  Please enjoy their failure.

~ Jean Gabin wears Jean Renoir's actual uniform from his service in WWI.

~ There is a scene involving a national anthem that you might recognize from when Casablanca ripped it off but tweaked it just enough that ow who cares?  Casablanca is overrated anyway.

~ What is the Grand Illusion of the title?  Audiences at the time would have thought that referred to the popular but highly silly book by Norman Angel that opined war was irrational, and would therefore be done away with quite soon.  There could be other grand illusions, like the code of honor and shared experiences of aristocracy that unite Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, or it could the border at the end of the film, at once arbitrary, invisible and powerful, separating the danger of Germany form the safety of Switzerland with no regard but cold indifference from the natural world around it.

~ There are countless examples of beautiful composed shots in this film, especially near the end, which must have especially stood out against the more stage bound films of the time.

~ The restoration is exquisite and but thankfully not overwhelming.  Every pop and hiss on the soundtrack is like the singing of angels.

~ The connections between Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein elicit some of the biggest laughs.  Right after meeting each other, von R. realizes that he knows Boeldieu's cousin in Berlin, and by the end of the film, they discover that they both "knew" the same woman who used to frequent Maxim's restaurant in Paris.

~ One of the inmates is a former vaudeville actor whose riffing instincts have gone into overdrive thanks to the brutality of war.  He hams and cracks wise with every single word that leaves his lips.  Even when he almost suffocates in an escape tunnel and has to be dragged out and revived (with Brandy, but of course, they're French!) the first words out his mouth are more jokes.

~ I first saw this film in September of 2003 in a French Film class at UC Davis where the out of print DVD was available.  I had not seen it again until it was playing at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco (surely the finest movie palace in the world) and I enjoyed it more the second time.

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