Apart from its other achievements, Jean Renoir's "Grand
Illusion” influenced two famous later movie sequences. The digging of the
escape tunnel in "The Great Escape" and the singing of the
"Marseilles” to enrage the Germans in "Casablanca" can first be
observed in Renoir's 1937 masterpiece. Even the details of the tunnel dig are
the same--the way the prisoners hide the excavated dirt in their pants and
shake it out on the parade ground during exercise.
if "Grand Illusion” had been merely a source of later inspiration, it
wouldn't be on so many lists of great films. It's not a movie about a prison
escape, nor is it jingoistic in its politics; it's a meditation on the collapse
of the old order of European civilization. Perhaps that was always a
sentimental upper-class illusion, the notion that gentlemen on both sides of
the lines subscribed to the same code of behavior. Whatever it was, it died in
the trenches of World War I.
you nor I can stop the march of time,” the captured French aristocrat Capt. de
Boieldieu tells the German prison camp commandant, Von Rauffenstein. A little
later, distracting the guards during an escape of others from the high-security
German fortress, the Frenchman forces the German to shoot him, reluctantly, and
they have a final deathbed exchange. `" didn't know a bullet in the
stomach hurt so much,” he tells the German. "I aimed at your legs,” says
the German, near tears. And a little later he says: "For a commoner, dying
in a war is a tragedy. But for you and I--it's a good way out.”
the Frenchman knows and the German won't admit is that the new world belongs to
commoners. It changed hands when the gentlemen of Europe declared war. And the
"grand illusion” of Renoir's title is the notion that the upper classes
somehow stand above war. The German cannot believe that his prisoners, whom he
treats almost as guests, would try to escape. After all, they have given their
word not to.
commandant is played by Erich von Stroheim, in one of the most famous of movie
performances. Even many who have not seen the movie can identify stills of the
wounded ace pilot von Rauffenstein, his body held rigid by a neck and back
brace, his eye squinting through a monocle. De Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay), from
an old aristocratic family, is a pilot von Rauffenstein personally shot down
earlier in the war. The other two major characters are also French prisoners:
Marechal (Jean Gabin), a workingman, a member of the emerging proletariat, and
Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish banker who has ironically purchased the
chateau that de Boieldieu's family can no longer afford. The movie, filmed as
the clouds of World War II were gathering, uses these characters to illustrate
how the themes of the first war would tragically worsen in the second.
pointed was Renoir's message that when the Germans occupied France, “Grand
Illusion” was one of the first things they seized. It was "Cinematic
Public Enemy No. 1,” propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels announced, ordering
the original negative seized. Its history since then would make a movie like
"The Red Violin," as the print moved across borders in shadowy ways.
For many years it was assumed that the negative was destroyed in a 1942 Allied
air raid. But as Stuart Klawens reported in the Nation, it had already been
singled out by a German film archivist named Frank Hensel, then a Nazi officer
in Paris, who had it shipped to Berlin. When Renoir supervised the assembly of
a “restored” print in the 1960s, nothing was known of this negative. He worked
from the best available surviving theatrical prints. The result, the version
that has been seen all over the world until now, was a little scratched and
murky, and encumbered by clumsy subtitles.
original negative, meanwhile, was captured by Russians as they occupied Berlin
and shipped to an archive in Moscow. In the mid-1960s, Klawens wrote, a Russian
film archive and one in Toulouse, France, exchanged some prints, including the
priceless "Grand Illusion.” But since many prints of the film existed and
no one thought the original negative had survived, the negative waited for 30
years before being identified as a treasure. What that means is that the
restored print of "Grand Illusion” now being shown around the country is
the best seen since the movie's premiere. And new subtitles by Lenny Borger are
much improved--"cleaner and more pointed,” says critic Stanley Kauffmann.
print looks and feels like a brand-new film. Here is a crisp print that
underlines Renoir's visual style, his mastery of a subtly moving camera that
allowed him to film extended passages without cutting. In the paintings of his
father, Auguste Renoir, our eyes are led gently through the composition. In the
films of the son, there is a quiet voluptuousness; the camera doesn't point or
intrude, but glides.
"Grand Illusion” opens, we meet von Rauffenstein in the German officers'
mess. Having shot down two French fliers, he issues orders: "If they are
officers, invite them for lunch.” Marechal and de Boieldieu are later sent to a
POW camp, where they meet Rosenthal, already a prisoner, and benefit from the
boxes of food his family sends him; often they eat better than their captors.
Here are the tunnel-digging sequences, and the famous talent show scene, where
total silence falls as they regard a man costumed as a woman, for it has been
so long since they've seen a real one.
tunnel digging is interrupted when all the prisoners are transferred. A few
years pass, and now the three principal characters have been sent to
Wintersborn, a fortress with high, unscalable walls. After a back wound ended
his flying days, von Rauffenstein has volunteered to be commandant here as a
way of remaining in service. He is strict but fair, still deceived by notions
of class loyalty.
these scenes von Stroheim makes an indelible impression, as a man deluded by
romantic notions of chivalry and friendship. It is a touching performance, a collaboration
between the great silent director and Renoir, then emerging as a master of sound.
The performance is better even than it seems: Audiences assume Erich von
Stroheim was a German, but mystery clouds his origins. Born in Vienna in 1885,
by 1914 he was working with D.W. Griffith in Hollywood, but when did he
immigrate to America (and add the "von” to his name)? Renoir writes in his
memoirs: "Stroheim spoke hardly any German. He had to study his lines like
a schoolboy learning a foreign language.”
break from the fortress prison produces the touching deathbed farewell between
De Boeldier and von Rauffenstein, which is the film's most touching scene, and
then we join the workingman Marechal and the banker Rosenthal as they try to
escape by walking cross-country through German territory. They're given shelter
by a farm widow who sees security in Marechal, and perhaps Renoir is whispering
that the true class connection across enemy lines is between the workers, not
Renoir, born in 1894, is on any list of the half-dozen greatest filmmakers, and
his "The Rules of the Game" (1939) is even more highly considered
than "Grand Illusion.” He fought in World War I, then quickly returned to
Paris and entered the movie business. In his best films observation and
sympathy for the characters define every shot; there is hardly a camera
decision made for pure effect, without thinking first of where best to stand to
see the characters.
moved to America in 1940, and made several Hollywood films, notably "The
Southerner," with a screenplay by Faulkner, before going independent in
the 1950s with "The River," based on Rumer Godden's Calcutta story.
In a long retirement he was sought out by younger filmmakers and critics, who found
him as sunny as a grandfather in one of his father's impressionist paintings.
He died in 1979. He would have been much cheered to know that even then the
pristine negative of "Grand Illusion” was waiting in Toulouse to be