Grand Illusion(SE)A,A

Voyager/1938/114m/BW 1.33 

     Huzzahs to Voyager for their perseverance in the face of petulant home theater community flak while they put together a near perfect DVD of Grand Illusion. Originally slated to be their initial jump into DVD, the Voyager producers were not satisfied with the elements from the newly minted print from the miraculously surviving camera negative. Extensive digital restoration, demonstrated in brilliant style in brilliant style as part of the special edition, makes Grand Illusion look as beautiful as director Jean Renoir could ever have hoped. Included in the special edition is an introduction by Jean Renoir from the 1957 re-release from then recently recovered elements of the uncut work. Renoir is charming, speaking in English, and the introduction might be an interesting way to begin to approach Grand Illusion instead of jumping into the film first. The press book essays are interesting reading and excerpts from a New York Film Critics Award ceremony radio broadcast add a quaint touch to the special edition. British film historian Peter Cowie's very good second audio produced for the Criterion Collection laser disc is included. Cowie has lots of insight into the film, the actors, and its place in cinema history. But the highlight of the package, aside from the exquisite film, are the examples of the restoration. It's not a long or extensive segment, but it visualizes the restoration process in simple, eloquent terms, a fitting footnote to Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion.      

Getting ready to tunnel. ©Voyager

     Grand Illusion is a seminal anti-war film even though it takes place away from the battle fields and behind the barbed wire of prisoner of war camps. Renoir's vision transcends the stereotypical relationships of military adversaries. The Allies and the Germans are presented in human terms, and the greatest differences are class distinction, represented by the two career military officers von Rauffenstein and de Boieldieu. Both clearly see that their way of life is coming to an end and that war is no longer a viable answer for solving the world's problems. Perhaps the philosophy is oversimplified. Maréchal is the character that represents the heart of Grand Illusion. He personifies the philosophy without ever really speaking about it. Renoir made Grand Illusion as war was once again tormenting in Germany under the leadership of Hitler. It's almost a plea against the coming war, a cry of futility, as it stands, but a beautiful testament to humanity.      
     There are basically four acts to Grand Illusion. The abbreviated opening segment establishes the three main characters with sharp shorthand. Act two shifts to the first prisoner of war camp and is almost a frolic as the French plan their escape through a tunnel. They get to put on a drag show, Gabin gets a glimpse of solitary, and then it is on to the third prison camp, one established for repeated escape offenders. The last segment of the film is almost bucolic as Maréchal and Rosenthal find a peace between the bullets and Maréchal even finds love. 
     The granddaddy of prison camp movies, you can see the conventions established in Grand Illusion in many of the terrific classics that followed in its footsteps. Sequences in The Great Escape are reminiscent of Grand Illusion, and the relationships in Stalag 17 recall the banter between the French prisoners and the Germans in Renoir's film. 
     Renoir's command of the camera is wonderful. Pans open up the screen into a bigger picture. But, the drama focuses on the individuals within the framework of war and change. Renoir was lucky to have Jean Gabin star as Lt. Maréchal. Gabin commands the screen with supreme ease. He's the French equivalent of Spencer Tracy; the acting, so effortless, yet so convincing. The other characters revolve around the amazing presence of Gabin. Eric Von Stroheim is terrific as the aristocratic German career officer who finds himself in the uncomfortable position of commander of a prisoner of war camp. Von Stroheims's stiff bearing is perfect for Captain von Rauffenstein. Pierre Fresnay matches the German's imperiousness as de Boieldieu. Marcel Dalio provides solid charm as Rosenthal.     
     The image is very clean and detailed. Film grain is handled with great care and is tightly preserved. Contrast is not overly pumped. It has a natural, relaxed feeling to it. Blacks are deep and rich. The sound is clean but thin, no more or less than expected, but there's no disturbing hiss or other obvious distortion. The white English subtitles are extremely easy to read and the translation is very literate. This is classic for collectors of film and movie lovers alike.



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