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.
But what is it, exactly, that gets overflowed? Apparently, I do need to describe the structure.
This, too, becomes magically clear with the restoration. Renoir and his co-screenwriter, Charles Spaak, made Grand Illusion in three acts. The first introduces Maréchal and de Boeldieu to von Rauffenstein, then takes the two Frenchmen to their initial prison camp. There they meet another major character, the wealthy, generous and emphatically Jewish Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio); they also participate in their first escape attempt, which fails at the act’s end through an ironic reversal.
A montage of landscapes and prison-camp gates, seen from a train, introduces the second act, set in a Gothic fortress high in the mountains. Here, Maréchal and de Boeldieu are reunited with Rosenthal, and also with von Rauffenstein, who has been forced by injury to retire from the front lines. This act, too, ends with an escape, and a successful one. Maréchal and Rosenthal slip down the mountain to the accompaniment of busy orchestral music, while de Boeldieu, in a bit of ostentatiously symmetrical self-sacrifice, clambers up the mountain amid silence, buying time for his comrades and forcing von Rauffenstein to shoot him.
In act three, Maréchal and Rosenthal trudge through the mountains, quarreling and reconciling, until they find refuge with a German farm wife named Elsa (Dita Parlo), who has been left widowed by the war. Romance blooms between Maréchal and Elsa; but duty also calls. At the end, the two soldiers leave, hoping to cross the border into Switzerland and (presumably) resume fighting the war.
A strange conclusion for an antiwar film. But then, in what sense may Grand Illusion be considered antiwar? Certainly Renoir portrays the people on both sides of the conflict as fully human. With the relationships between von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu, between Maréchal and Elsa, he also dramatizes the human bonds that can cross enemy lines. But this isn’t to say that the lines must not be put up. In fact, the kind of sentimental pacifism that might satisfy itself with the bland phrase “antiwar film” is precisely the satirical object of the title. Does Maréchal think that another war won’t come? Then he’s fooling himself, says Rosenthal the Jew, who first made that judgment not on the Swiss border in 1917 but in a Parisian movie house in 1937.
Let’s remember that the author of Grand Illusion was an enthusiastic participant in Popular Front culture and a regular contributor to a Communist paper. (This being France, he was subjected to a less-than-iron discipline. Renoir filled his column with whatever happened to amuse him.) Though far from bellicose, neither was he softheaded about the conflicts in the world. He was not likely to ignore the possibility that Hitler might have to be met with force, whatever the Party might say at the moment. And so, having established a moral and political symmetry at the start of Grand Illusion–a symmetry reinforced by the three-act structure–he proceeded to upset the balance, showing that choices had to be made. Maréchal loves Elsa–she’s the woman he’s been trying to meet since the beginning of the picture, when his planned trip into town was interrupted–but he leaves her anyway. And von Rauffenstein (surely the butch partner in his relationship) shoots de Boeldieu, who in effect betrayed his love.
If you think back to that beautiful three-act structure, the betrayal takes on a physical weight, since each act has its characteristic setting. Act one takes place amid shedlike barracks, guard towers and metal fences: a semi-industrial architecture, which was unknown until the modern era. Act two, in effect, takes the characters backward in time, into a setting that is at once baronial and ecclesiastic. This is the world of feudal virtues and privileges–the world von Rauffenstein cherishes and de Boeldieu tosses away, playfully giving up his life for the sake of a working man and a Jew. It’s plain that in doing so, he’s not just following his patriotic duty. He’s also letting the modern world take precedence over a fellow aristocrat.
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.