Like a kid at an ice-cream counter, urging his friends to try the chocolate–like a writer of travel guides, warning tourists not to miss the Eiffel Tower–I come before you to praise Grand Illusion. My excuse for this superfluity: A fresh print of Jean Renoir’s masterpiece is now making its way into theaters.
Although the story behind this re-release is remarkable, it involves no rediscoveries of footage, no reconstructions of scenes that were cut. The distributor, Rialto Pictures, merely offers you a crisper print than any that’s been available for sixty-two years. Under these circumstances, I can’t invite you to “See Grand Illusion as it’s never been seen before.” I say only, “See Grand Illusion.”
See it and rediscover why footage exists. See it and reconstruct yourself.
Because it’s based on the best source possible–the original camera negative–the new print allows you to peer into nighttime shadows; to gaze all the way from a mountain meadow to a river; to feel your eyesight rub against the plastered wall that was Jean Gabin’s mug. In short, Grand Illusion is no longer just a great story (as it’s been on video and in the old, worn prints). It is also once more what it was at the beginning: an overwhelming presence. And here the film teaches a lesson about how masterpieces behave. Now that its images are clear again, so too is the force of the story.
You know, of course, that Grand Illusion concerns French prisoners of World War I. At the very start of the picture, the aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and the working-class Lieutenant Maréchal (Gabin) fall into German hands–specifically those of one Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), who pursues war in much the same spirit as he might ride to hounds. He greets his captives with a formal lunch, extending the respect he believes is due to officers–though only to de Boeldieu does he offer the friendship of a gentleman.
With these few quick strokes, Renoir makes you understand you’re witnessing a vanished Europe, a Europe that vanished precisely because of this war. Think of how this realization must have struck the film’s first audiences. Separated from this period by only twenty years, they must have watched Grand Illusion and marveled at the change in their world. On one side of the Rhine, people now had a Popular Front government; on the other, they were ruled (most of them willingly) by Nazis. Yet the Europe evoked by Grand Illusion, so soon after its demise, is one of perfect symmetry. Even the set drives home the message. The German field club, where von Rauffenstein plays host to his captives, is laid out as the mirror image of the French officers’ club.
I might describe the rest of the film as the introduction of asymmetry–the breaking of the mirror. A cold description, you might say, especially when you consider Renoir’s reputation as cinema’s great humanist. Surely audiences love Grand Illusion not for its formal structure but for the characters, not one of whom considers himself to be incidental. The Russian prisoner who whiles away his time giving grammar lessons; the British officer who fumbles with the tennis racket he’s lugged into the trenches; the detention-cell guard who soothes Gabin with the gift of a harmonica (as much to buy some peace for himself, perhaps, as to comfort his fellow man); even the German soldier who comes close to discovering French escapees in their hiding place, and who turns out to be a most genial and boyish threat to life–each of the dozens of characters, no matter how brief his appearance, seems to lead a life of his own. To speak the platitude that only such a film can redeem, Grand Illusion overflows with life.