It’s almost superfluous to sing the praises of Jean Renoir’s 1937 classic “La Grande Illusion,” which is widely recognized as one of the greatest of films. On the surface it’s a prison-camp story, set during World War I, in which a group of French officers—keenly aristocratic Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), gruffly down-to-earth Marechal (Jean Gabin) and wealthy, generous Jew Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio)—find themselves the “guests” of courtly Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), a commandant punctilious about the traditions of his class, even in wartime. But to pigeonhole the film with such a simplistic description is a grave injustice, and the appearance of a beautiful new restoration affords the opportunity to catalogue its virtues again.
The embrace of the script by Renoir and Charles Spaak is wide, and it concentrates on human relationships rather than action (indeed, a brief subplot involving an escape tunnel is treated cavalierly, and when an escape does occur, it serves primarily to illuminate the connections among the characters). It draws a portrait of camaraderie between the three officers and other French prisoners, like the jolly music-hall performer Cartier (Julien Carette) or the schoolteacher obsessed with translating Pindar, that’s touchingly affectionate, with one stunningly poignant moment when a handsome prisoner dons female costume for a camp theatrical show. It fashions a respectful picture of the two duty-bound aristocrats, Boeldieu and Rauffenstein, that becomes a mournful tribute to an era of gentility and noblesse oblige that’s quickly passing away. It touches on the poison of anti-Semitism, not only in Rosenthal’s remarks about himself, but in a startling moment when he and Marechal, having escaped, briefly fall to arguing over their route. And it ends with an almost blissful final act in which Dita Parlo, as a widowed German farmer, becomes an angel of mercy and love as beatific as Lilian Gish in “The Night of the Hunter,” and an ordinary German soldier can wish an enemy well as he crosses the Swiss border (at a time, one must recall, when men were dying by the hundreds of thousands on the western front).
“La Grande Illusion” isn’t showy; its very simplicity of utterance gives it a purity that makes other films that try to express similar sentiments feel forced and obvious. It’s anti-war, of course, but not by focusing on the awfulness of combat per se (we don’t even see Boeldieu’s plane being shot down). Instead the futility of the conflict is merely alluded to in brief sequences when reports come in about the same territory being repeatedly taken and lost by the opposing armies, or when Parlo sadly mentions the deaths of her husband and brothers in notable German “victories.” The idea that war has any value is the greatest of illusions, of course; but Renoir doesn’t beat us over the head with the message. And his film is all the more moving and timeless for it, though modern audiences naturally have to make the necessary allowances for technology that’s seventy-five years old and acting styles that now seem somewhat archaic.
The historical vicissitudes of “La Grande Illusion,” which Joseph Goebbels tried to suppress, are now well documented. It was long believed that the original camera negative had been destroyed on the Reichminister’s order, requiring reissues to be cobbled together primarily from existing prints. But the original negative was actually liberated from Berlin by the Soviets and later returned to France, and it served as the basis for the ravishing new print struck from it that’s now circulating in select US cities. Christian Matras’ lustrous black-and-white cinematography positively glows again, and the aspect ratio has been properly restored (even if all theatres won’t be able to project the boxy images perfectly in that regard). The fortunate can now experience one of cinema’s legendary films in virtually pristine form. It’s an opportunity no serious student of film should miss.