Criterion Collection · Drama · France · War

#1: La Grande Illusion (1937)

Criterion Challenge #1
La Grande Illusion

1937 // France
Spine #1 (Out-of-print)
Release: Nov 23, 1999
So here we go, the very first spine number of the Criterion Collection DVD, and the start of my Criterion Challenge: collecting and reviewing every Criterion titles, probably every Criterion die-hard fans may get their hands on doing it one way or another. The challenge would start with Jean Renoir’s “La Grande Illusion”, and the film undoubtedly deserves the honor of being labeled as number 1 in the collection. Yet upon my research of the collection history, I realized it is actually not the first Criterion DVD title to be released, due to the two-year restoration work, which is a little fun fact to look at. So it has been 15 years since the release of this now-out-of-print DVD in 1999, I still find the transfer looks surprisingly satisfactory. I have the Blu-Ray release from Studio Canal, but I would write the review based on the Criterion version.

This is my third times viewing of “La Grande Illusion”, and I have already watched every Renoir films included in the Criterion Collection. Honestly my very first impression of the film way back several years ago was not that impressive, I was somehow let down by the very high expectation and the pre-set impression of war films: gritty, brutal and dehumanizing. “La Grande Illusion” is opposite to these, it is joyful, relaxing and celebratory. It is a masterpiece that took me a while to adjust, and absorb.

The three-act structure of “La Grande Illusion” is very clear cutting and formalized. In the epilogue, we are introduced to the two French comrades, Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), as well as their simple mission by plane. Immediately afterwards, we are shown to the enemy side, the German soldier and their Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). A French plane was shot down off screen, and the captured officers were invited to have lunch with the German by Rauffenstein, just as they are the honorable guests. Enemies are treated as human, with dignity and respect, which is highly unusual from my point of view, as I’m used to the brutality of war depicted in war films. This personal uneasiness continued throughout the entire film in my first viewing.

With an economical use of montage of scenic countryside as viewed from a moving train, we are lastly shown to the name of the Prisoner-of-War Camp, Hallbach. And the act one begins. This montage would come back again in a prolonged way between transition of act one and act two. The film spent the two-third of screening time in depicting the daily life, and the matter-of-fact prison escape of the prisoners in the POW camps. However they were living more like soldiers imprisoned in a big free confinement, rather than simply “prisoners”. They could have their parcels delivered from their own countries (besides French, there were also British and Russian soldiers), and they could even sit around a big table in their own compartment and have a clean and formal meal! The two protagonists, Maréchal and Boeldieu were put in the same room with several French soldiers, they were best remembered by the characters’ original job before the war, like Cartier, the actor (Julien Carette), the school teacher (Jean Dasté) or the engineer (Gaston Modot), reminding the audience of the lost reality that was crushed by the war.

Even in this comfortable and organized camp, the prisoners decided to dig a tunnel for escape, acted just like the duty of a prisoner. The tunnel-digging scene was very much echoed with the later methodical prison-escape film “Le trou”, a masterpiece by director Jacques Becker who also worked as the assistant director in this film. “La Grande Illusion” is fueled with comedy and cheerfulness, very much unimaginable to be seen in other WWI films like “Paths of Glory” or “All Quiet on the Western Front”, which are more famous for the fighting in tranches. There was even a dancing play in “La Grande Illusion” performed by the prisoners themselves, making one of the most memorable scenes from the film: a hall of soldiers were stunned and fell into silence upon seeing a prisoner dressed in woman clothes, the scene was done with a fluid movement of a single shot by cinematographer Christian Matras showing the unforgettable desires from the faces of the prisoners. Lighthearted it is, but the horror and disadvantage of wars are truly present in the film, just as the body of a shot-dead soldier, and the marching group of young soldier who looks like they just came out of secondary school. “War” is played out off screen with newspaper and bulletin just when Fort Douaumont was captured by the German.

The main focus of Jean Renoir is the human relations, the film is actually based on his own experience as a pilot during WWI (Jean Gabin’s uniform in the film actually belongs to Renoir during the service!), and a captain he knew who had been in POW camp seven times! So all the events may have actually taken place 100 years ago, or at least not that far-fetched from the reality. This time I finally put down my doubt and enjoy the sequence of the dancing performance, whereas a very similar ‘performance’ from the characters-in films also appeared in “The Rules of the Game”, not to mention Renoir’s later spectacular works like the “French Cancan”. But the same kind of enjoyment may not be shared by the German soldier as Maréchal rushed to the stage and announced the recapture of the Fort Douaumont by the French, then the prisoners stand and sang La Marseillaise together. As Peter Cowie mentioned in the audio commentary, Michael Curtiz was probably thinking of this scene while making “Casablance”. Again the scene was played in a single shot of movement showing all the faces of essential characters involved, reminding us that they are all struck in the same room even though they are from different perspectives, and different sides of the war.

Maréchal’s subsequent solitary imprisonment is both funny and masterful in his execution, a swing of the camera, and the passing time showed by the growth of the beard on Maréchal’s face. The brutality and inhumanity of the punishment is contrasted to the sympathy from the German soldier to Maréchal, showing how war was different from the modern times, and probably very different from the period with all the tension in the Europe when Renoir was making the film, which finally broke out in WWII. The comrades’ relationship is truly believable and touching, and it’s a shock to me that this section (act one) only comprised less than one half of the film, yet all the side characters were outstanding and distinctive.

Again we have the montage of places and names of prison camps as viewed from a moving train, and only at the third viewing that I finally realized Maréchal and Boeldieu have been moved from several prison camps before arriving at the “castle” Wintersborn. The 10 seconds montage just showed the passing of several months at least. This discovery is actually hinted in plain sight in a later sequence when Captain von Rauffenstein mentioned the number of escape attempted and the creative way each of them had. I felt shameful not to realize that earlier, at the same time my admiration to Jean Renoir grew exponentially, as he had faith in the viewers’ interpretation and the intelligence.

Act two has fewer prisoners in focus, and more attention is paid on the relationship between Boeldieu and Captain von Rauffenstein, the captive and the captor who both behaved rightly as an aristocrat, as well as the relationship between Boeldieu and Maréchal, a social class difference that is deemed to go in their separate ways. The pre-war social status was distinguished and concretized even inside a prison, Rauffenstein treated Boeldieu with respect, gave them a tour of the prison, showing the tightened security, and invited Boeldieu (this time Boeldieu only) to his own office and had a bourgeoisie chat. One can assume that they would continue to be amicable friends if not under the circumstances of war.

Erich von Stroheim, who played Rauffenstein, was an auteur silent films director “notoriously” difficult to work with. His renowned work “Greed” was heavily butchered before the release, he even got himself fired while directing “Queen Kelly”. He sometimes played the male protagonist (also the antagonist) in his own film, with the sense of aristocratism and gesture of nobility (He played a con artist disguised as Russian general in “Foolish Wives”, and the Prince in “The Wedding March”). The character Rauffenstein definitely belongs to the same category of his type casting: noble, rigid, and stiff physically as Rauffenstein got his spine fixed and can’t even move his neck. This creates a comedic effect and unique characterization, it gives a breath of bygone era of the feudalism. The mutual respect between Boeldieu and Rauffenstein was fully realized upon the death scene of Boeldieu, who sacrifice himself in order to provide diversion for Maréchal and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) to escape. Rauffenstein was forced to shoot him, and regrettably shoot at the wrong body part, Boeldieu fully understand that the shooting was Rauffenstein ‘s duty and there’s not a sense of hatred or grudge in the entire scene. Heroic it is, but not as sentimental as one may expect from a war film.

Rosenthal, a Jewish French prisoner who has appeared in the first two acts, got a more central role in act three, as he escaped together with Maréchal. But things turned nasty when he twisted his ankle and became a burden to Maréchal. The Jewish origin was played subtly with the use of dialogues, one may say the anti-Semitism which was arising in the period of production in Germany was reflected in “La grande illusion”. Nonetheless Maréchal made up with Rosenthal, they eventually hid inside a farm house. Act three is mainly a love story which comprised only one fourth of the entire screen time, but it surely is the most heartwarming and humanistic part. The farm house belongs to a German widow Elsa (Dita Parlo) and her young daughter. She took care of the two escapees, nursed Rosenthal back to health, and fell in love with Maréchal despite of language barrier.

The entire third act is an illusion of love, an illusion of daily life without war and suffering, a life that should be lived by a complete family. It’s like a play house, a mother and a father with their beloved daughter. It showed the loneliness of both the escapee and the widow, and that’s what attached them together, Maréchal promised he would come back after the war. But would he? And would Elsa wait for a man who may be killed in the war once again just like her husband? It’s an unpromising love, and probably an over-purification on humanity as well. A similar but more brutal situation can be found in “The Ascent”, which has the escapees-hidden-in-a-farm-house situation ends in the most tragic and uncompromising way. There is no “human love” found in “The Ascent”. But if Renoir believed that’s how WWI should be like, why not the audience believes that too?

The last scene with Maréchal and Rosenthal crossing the border to Switzerland is as optimistic as the film could be. They need to go back to their country, back to this “Gentleman War” as Renoir described, but what’s the point with all this fight? We never knew, just as the officers carrying out their duty without asking the reason behind except “serving the country”, at least the soldiers depicted at this film were sympathic. Nazi obviously hated this kind of warmhearted portraits, and the film was considered as the “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1” by the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Nazi confiscated the film, and the original film negative was believed to be lost for several decades, until it was miraculously found again in France, which is yet another greatest story that should be told.

Film score: 5/5
Supplements: 3.5/5

Rich and informative, especially the audio commentary by Peter Cowie is a must-listen, I listened it twice already. Although the press book excerpts are a bit old-style and other visual supplements are quite short, overall the supplements are adequate. Unfortunately the DVD is out-of-print, otherwise a more packed upgrade version is desirable.

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