To mark the 75th anniversary of La Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir’s most successful film, Studiocanal and the Cinémathèque de Toulouse are releasing a new, digitally restored version. It is very moving to see a classic film so skilfully restored, the image as clear and blemish-free as if it were made yesterday, the soundtrack without the hint of a crackle. Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim are resurrected and, without any technical interference, the audience of 2012 is transported to World War I. They sense, with a shiver, the film’s original significance on the eve of a second world war. As Europe confronts financial crisis today, La Grande Illusion retains its power as an example of European camaraderie and co-operation.
Set in Germany, the film follows a group of French prisoners of war. The central characters span the social spectrum: Lieutenant Maréchal (Gabin), a good-humoured, big-hearted man of modest means; Lieutenant Rosenthal, a rich Jewish banker who generously shares his care packages from Paris; and their captain, de Boeldieu, whose upper-class manners and habits keep his men at a distance, even though he considers them his equals. De Boeldieu feels more at home with a German of similar rank and background: Captain von Rauffenstein (von Stroheim), a captor who acts as a gracious host. All of the men regularly comment on the differences that separate them, but they equally demonstrate how friendship can overcome barriers of class, religion and nationality. Class is the greatest separating factor, specifically the divide between an increasingly outdated aristocracy and the plebs who are about to take over power in a fast-changing Europe. While Rosenthal’s wealth doesn’t prevent him and Maréchal from becoming firm friends, the stiff behaviour of de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein isolates them. Yet these two repressed characters are at the centre of one of the film’s most moving scenes: the powerful emotions that de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein must feel are made more poignant for being so carefully controlled and subtly expressed. All human relationships are precious here, as it is uncertain whether any of the men will make it to the end of the war.
There was uncertainty in the very existence of La Grande Illusion. An anti-war film made just two years before World War II, it was banned in Germany, Italy and France, before the Nazis confiscated the negative. Luckily, the Reichfilmarchiv was located in a part of Berlin that later fell to the Red Army. La Grande Illusion was taken to Moscow, where it formed part of the founding collection of Gosfilmfond, Russia’s National Film Archives. It was 20 years before the film was finally returned to France. The film’s first restoration in the 1990s reinstated previously censored scenes featuring sympathetic Germans or references to venereal disease. The new print will be released in UK cinemas on April 6, and from April 23, La Grande Illusion will be available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Watch the trailer: