Renoir All Over Again
And does Maréchal, too, yield to the modern world? That's the meaning of act three. He and Rosenthal escape from feudalism into a pastoral setting, which in turn must be escaped. It's lovely--but for them, it's a fantasy. They have to go back toward the world of barracks and barbed wire, as surely as Elsa, her heart broken, must calmly clear the table and set out food for her little daughter.
An "antiwar film" would try to remain within the pastoral. Or, more sardonically, it might go full circle, returning Maréchal to his original setting. Instead, Grand Illusion leaves Maréchal in a field of snow, where he's seen in long-shot with a friend he'd never dreamed of having. Each finely balanced element of the film has shifted, subtly but decisively, yielding an ending that's wide open.
Needless to say, I understood none of this the first eight or ten times I saw Grand Illusion. The film was too full of incident and detail, and the performances were too enthralling. (No matter which tricks I could isolate--Fresnay's reluctance, as de Boeldieu, to look directly at any subordinate, or von Stroheim's catalogue of physical rigidities as von Rauffenstein, or Dalio's almost dancelike miming of Rosenthal's sensitivity--Grand Illusion taught me that great acting is a mystery. All I could say was that somehow, the leads all gave the finest performances of their screen careers--with the possible exception of Dalio, who was as good in The Rules of the Game.) But there was another reason for my getting lost in the picture. The various prints I watched gave no sense of immediacy. They belonged, too visibly, to a past era.
The current print makes Grand Illusion look like a new film. (I mean physically, of course, not artistically.) It overcomes one's sense of distance from the screen, so that the mind and the pulse can both quicken. This miracle comes complete with its own war story; and so I will tell it now.
As is well-known, Goebbels declared Grand Illusion to be "Cinematic Public Enemy Number One," and the Nazis confiscated prints of the film wherever they could be seized. It is less well-known that a Nazi officer in occupied Paris--Dr. Frank Hensel, a co-founder of the International Federation of Film Archives--safeguarded many films by shipping them back to the Reichsfilmarchiv. For years, it's been assumed that the original camera negative of Grand Illusion was destroyed in 1942 by an Allied air raid on Paris; but in fact, thanks to Hensel, the primary materials of Cinematic Public Enemy Number One were by then in a vault in Berlin.
That vault happened to be in the sector that became the Russian Zone. In 1945, the camera negative of Grand Illusion rode to Moscow on a Red Army truck, along with a multitude of other films, to build the Gosfilmofond. But the Soviet archivists apparently did not realize what they were holding--and neither did the French archivists at the Cinémathèque de Toulouse, who received the camera negative in the mid-sixties as part of an exchange program. Grand Illusion was not considered to be a lost or mutilated film; and so nobody took a close look at the cans until the early nineties, when they were shipped from Toulouse to the main French archive at Bois d'Arcy for cataloguing and preservation.
The result is now available to you. I can say nothing more than, "See it."
And again. And again.