– “It’s our duty, this is war.”
– “Agreed, but even so let’s remember our manners.”
You know how Citizen Kane is considered by some to be the greatest film of all time? Well, I’m the kind of curious movie nerd who subsequently wonders which film was atop Kane auteur Orson Welles’ personal list. Unfortunately, I can’t ask him, but there’s evidence suggesting the answer was Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion/Grand Illusion.
The film quickly introduces us to laid back Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin) and aristocratic Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) — we know he’s aristocratic because he wears a monocle — two French soldiers during World War I who are captured by German forces led by the disarmingly genteel Captain von Rauffenstein (the terrific Erich von Stroheim). We follow Marechal and de Boeldieu as they are taken from one prison camp to another (including an eventual reunion with von Rauffenstein in a mountain fortress), all the while repeatedly trying to escape because the idea of the war ending soon is a “grand illusion.” (A message that still resonates today.)
Renoir’s antiwar classic — the 1937 effort was the first foreign film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar — is making its U.S. Blu-ray debut in a lovingly composed restoration as part of the StudioCanal Collection. We’ll get to the audio/visual stuff, as well as the film’s fascinating back story in a bit. Right now, I want to talk about La Grande Illusion itself, an impressively layered and masterfully assembled film that is also often wickedly funny.
Renoir, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Spaak, based the film on his own WWI experiences. (He was a pilot in a photography squadron.) The first thing that struck me was how well the German and French soldiers treated each other (the film takes place before Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party thoroughly dehumanized Germany’s opposition). No wonder Renoir referred to it as a “Gentleman’s War” in one of the special features. Part of the reason some of the characters treat each other unexpectedly well is because they are members of the same social class, if not from the same country. The most notable example is the kinship between the well-to-do duo of de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, two proud men from a fading upper class who still believe in the honor of dying in combat — unlike their more cynical colleagues — and who are prone to communicating in English (which further sets them apart from the other soldiers and grants them a level of intimacy). Though the de Boeldieu/von Rauffenstein relationship is fantastic, Renoir goes a bit overboard in terms of clubbing us over the head with his social class message. (I’m thinking of the scene between Marechal and Rosenthal, a fellow POW and a French Jew, where Rosenthal outwardly expresses the idea that he and Marechal have more in common with each other than they do with fellow de Boeldieu, despite the fact that they’re all prisoners. Too on-the-nose.)
I’ve touched on it, but both Fresnay and von Stroheim are excellent as de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein. Von Stroheim, in particular, would’ve been indelible even if this had been a silent film thanks to a face that has a ton of character. (And a chin perpetually held up by a neck brace in the latter part of the film.) Gabin — who looks like a French forebear of Kenneth Branagh — starts off with a casual, go-with-the-flow attitude, but adds an affecting level of soulfulness as the war takes a toll on the devil-may-care Marechal. Dita Parlo — another performer with a great face — is the only woman in the film. (Not counting a little girl or bored soldiers in drag.) Though her performance is solid, I didn’t really buy into her connection with Marechal.
Still, the thing that struck me the most about La Grande Illusion is how Renoir gets his antiwar message across without ever showing us any gruesome action in the trenches. He stages a POW movie without showing us any of their myriad escape attempts (with one notable exception). The director’s heady ideas about the grand illusions these soldiers dealt with —from man-made borders between countries to the idea that WWI really would be “the war to end all wars” — are mostly interesting and affecting enough to maintain our attention. Still, I couldn’t completely shake the feeling that we were seeing an overly sanitized version of the POW experience in WWI. (Then again, Renoir was there and I wasn’t…so what do I know?)
Ok, this review’s getting a little out of hand and I haven’t even mentioned Renoir’s excellent, ahead-of-its-time camera work or his innate talent for framing a scene. Though I didn’t totally love La Grande Illusion, its artistic merit is both considerable and undeniable.
La Grande Illusion is presented in its original full frame format. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 24 mbps. Simply put, this movie does not look 75 years old. The B&W picture is just that: black and white, and largely free of any unpleasant gray hue. Needless to say, the black levels and contrast are both outstanding. The sharpness is also remarkably vivid (particularly in the handful of outdoor scenes) while maintaining incredible detail and texture (check out the threads on the uniforms). The only hiccup I noticed took place early on, where it appears damage to the negative crept into the edge of the opening credits.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 French track doesn’t fare quite as well as the video transfer, but is still impressive. By virtue of being a stereo presentation, this obviously isn’t the most immersive track I’ve heard (the most background noise we get is the low rumble of vehicles in the distance), but it remains surprisingly dynamic. When prisoners start playing flutes at the beginning of the climactic escape attempt, there’s a subtle, noticeable difference between the sound of the flutes inside a room with closed windows and the louder volume when someone opens one up. The quality of the sound effects is also strong (especially the marching), as is the presentation of Joseph Kosma’s score. The biggest issue comes — despite the heroic efforts of the restoration team — with the inevitable hollowness of the soundtrack. Then again, that’s an issue with films from that era in general and I wouldn’t want them to overwork the negative. More importantly, it doesn’t impede the dialogue from coming through intelligibly. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is also available in German.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD. You also have the option of getting the Blu-ray menu in English, French or German.
La Grande Illusion: Success and Controversy by Olivier Curchod: (23:21) Curchod, a cinema expert whose specialty is Renoir, reveals this was the first and last time the director achieved major critical and commercial success with one of his films. (La Grande Illusion was Renoir’s 21st movie.) After that, he focuses on the film’s colorful history, including the controversy surrounding an altered, 1946 re-rerelease — some had objected to the idea of French and German characters/actors being friendly on screen — a popular 1958 version of the film — restored from a 1937 copy (courtesy of the French Film Library) and featuring reconstructed credits — and the resurrection of the 1937 negative, which led to another restoration in the 1990s and featured the film’s original credits and much-improved picture quality. Curchod speaks (in subtitled French) eloquently and passionately about all the feathers La Grande Illusion ruffled at the time of its release(s) and its impact on world cinema as a whole.
The Original Negative by Natacha Laurent: (11:59) Laurent discusses the film’s most recent restoration and talks about the remarkable history and mission of the Toulouse Film Library, which includes preserving classic movies like La Grande Illusion. As the library’s managing director, she also makes the point that no restoration is considered definitive because there should always be room left for future generations to use the techniques at their disposal to improve any film.
Introduction by Ginette Vincendeau: (12:14) Film critic and cinema professor Vincendeau uses most of her time to put La Grande Illusion in its proper historical context. Vincendeau notes how the film was influenced by WWI’s effect on France as well as the impending second World War.
John Truby film presentation: (4:28) Writer/script doctor Truby talks about how the film (along with Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu/The Rules of the Game) informed his own screenwriting education. He also cites its influence on several legendary filmmakers. (Besides Welles, that list includes the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.)
Trailers: Previews from 1937 (4:08) and 1958 (5:36). The 1958 “trailer” is actually a cheeky introduction by Renoir, where he states theater management allowed him to replace the usual trailer with a few minutes of conversation. The director shares pictures from the set and talks about some of the real-life events that inspired the story.
Restoring La Grande Illusion: (3:24) The only slight disappointment in the bonus material for me. This brief selection of scenes wonderfully illustrates the difference between the original negative and the new restoration. (I was most impressed by the removal of jagged, visible scratches.) Unfortunately, the featurette doesn’t say anything about how it was actually accomplished. I get that an overly technical breakdown of the restoration process might’ve put most people to sleep, but I still would’ve loved at least a peek behind the curtain.
La Grande Illusion is not just a classic antiwar movie. Renoir’s film is more interested (as Vincendeau points out) in what divides and unites people on a basic human level. My lukewarm personal feelings for some of the storytelling aside, this great-looking Blu-ray is a must-have for any serious cinema buff.