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
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 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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