When I think of movies made prior to the early 1950′s, before American cinema began a steady shift toward naturalistic acting styles, I tend to think of what I would deem stage acting for the camera. Musical speech patterns, big gestures, and “charm” come to mind. I have yet to find my way into embracing that style of filmmaking. I’d like to think that I will grow to appreciate it for its own virtues, but I don’t have to grow today.
Grand Illusion, spine number 1 of the Criterion Collection DVD releases, feels fresh and modern despite more than seventy years passing since filming wrapped. Given the current policies in America toward POWs with Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, Desert Storm seems quaint. By starker contrast, the interactions in director Jean Renoir’s classic POW camp film, set during the First World War, are friendlier than a current day trip to the post office. Renoir addresses this directly in an included introduction, filmed for an American theatrical re-release of the film after the end of WWII. (It seems that after WWII, it was important to clarify that these Germans weren’t necessarily the noble guys depicted in his pre-WWII film.)
Renoir was exploring a wartime chivalry that probably never existed (despite what the Hogan’s Heroati might have you believe). He uses the setting of POW camp life to explore the broader issues of class and religious discrimination. Erich Von Stroheim plays the unforgettable Capt. Von Rauffenstein, an injured and now sidelined pilot placed in charge of a German POW camp. Von Rauffenstein affords captured French officer de Boeldiue, portrayed with appropriate stuffiness by Pierre Fresnay, special privileges due to their common upper class backgrounds and military rank. Von Rauffenstein relates more closely to the French officer than his own German soldiers and pines for some suitable company. Despite de Boeldiue’s refutations of such privileges, Renoir shows that class discrimination is a two way street. Jean Gabin is the star of the film, portraying Lt. Maréchal, a direct report of de Boeldiue. While Maréchal is privy to his Captains refutations, and they clearly like each other, they still mutually remain at arm’s length.
Furthering his social and class examination, Renoir introduces fellow prisoner Lt. Rosenthal. Rosenthal (played wonderfully by Marcel Dalio) is the product of a wealthy Jewish background and receives large packages of wine, food and assorted sundries shipped to the prison from his family. Rosenthal is entirely generous with the abundant goods, sharing the items with all of his bunkmates in the prison. Despite the obvious class differences between himself and most of the others, he is not treated with equal distance as is Capt. de Boeldiue. Renoir seems to be pointing out that religious prejudices overrode the class differences between men in his time. Even Gabin himself slips into anti-Semitic territory with Rosenthal late in the film before righting himself. This aspect of the film would become all too realized just after completion of Grand Illusion in 1937.
I was interested to find out that this was the first POW escape film. You can see most of the conventions associated with this subgenre of films present in Grand Illusion. Also of note, perhaps a more appropriate translation of the film’s title would be The Great Illusion as this is the intended commentary Renoir is making about the notion of war and class in human society.
The Criterion print of the film is absolutely beautiful with startling clarity and depth that was believed lost prior to the rather incredible discovery of the original film negative in the 1990’s (originally saved in, of all places, the Reichsfilmarchiv vaults). The commentary by film historian Peter Cowie is academic, though it should be remembered that this was recorded fairly early in the life of audio commentaries. The special features on the disc are small in number and much of them are of the text variety, a convention less common on DVD releases of the past several years. I will say that I don’t typically enjoy reading my special features, but the information on the discovery of the camera negative is quite fascinating and the accompanying demonstration of the film’s restoration shows the incredible improvements made upon this release.