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|Index||120 reviews in total|
It startles me now how much the prison break subgenre can do. It gives
us Cool Hand Luke, The Shawshank Redemption, Le Trou, The Defiant Ones
and The Grand Illusion. Perhaps it's the subgenre that can reveal the
most humanity. The Grand Illusion definitely deserves the classic
status it has. Although the plot can be hard to follow as well as
tracking the side characters, it's the profound themes that shine out.
It suggests the idea that "the grand illusion" of life is the
differences between people, specifically through nationality and class.
It's touched on in a brilliantly ironic way, best summed up from its
last moment. I'll have to rewatch this film to get under the
character's skin but its influence on cinema remains powerful. It's The
Grand Illusion's blend of camaraderie, sense of tragedy and emotion
that makes this film so timeless and a pleasure to watch. I'm very glad
I finally watched it.
Most hail La Grande Illusion for its overt commentary on class politics and depiction of horizontal/vertical boundaries. The film also has its subtleties - De Boeldieu knows the downsides of both aviation uniforms which is a keen distinction on his part and one that defines bourgeois upbringing. Some would identify such distinguishing as snobbery while it must also be considered as an element of intelligence and foresight. English as a mediator language is another element of foresight as it did prove to become the international language, for all intents and purposes. What is the 'Grand Illusion' then? Is it that to conduct war with rules beguiles the essence of rank inherent to those rules? Is it that the rhetoric of fraternity ignores other roles in the genealogy of social organization? These suppositions would imply a hard Left position within the film. However, the film's direct reference to a grand illusion is that the war would soon end. Renoir posits thus that war is an eternal process because of a dishonesty between internal and external truths. This is best exemplified through the theatre prep scene where the 'awkward' silence hints at something being said internally that would never be admitted to externally. And so the illusion is imagination itself... we are always exercising it but only within a bordered construct of the psyche. Imagination has an infinitely expansive quality but remains 'stuck' within the fixed borders of what is consciously understood (known, accepted, denied and disavowed). De Boeldieu's "What's fair in a war" echoes the greater truth of "what's fair in life". Illusion is a consistent film stylistically - great depth of field, long tracking shots, group dynamics, polyvocal dialogue superseding shot-reverse-shot construction, mobile framing, the long shot. When Gabin's Marechal is put in solitary, there is no significant closeup treatment and no attempt to draw out psychological response or evoke emotions in the spectator - despair of the individual is not entertained by the apparatus. Illusion is a powerful film which highlights that sooner than Renoir being a humanist and ambiguous politically, he is ambiguously humanist and thoroughly apolitical.
One of the reasons why Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion holds up so well
some 70 years after its release is because it isn't wholly about war.
It is on the surface and to a degree, but like The Great War it
inhabits, this is a film depicting the two key countries of Europe in
the first half of the 20th century attempting to cooperate and even be
amiable to one another. In a sense, this is a brilliant social
exploration of two very different groups of people that have much more
in common than they realize.
France and Germany were the key settings for WWI; after all, probably 75% or more of the combat was at the Western Front, that horrific, brutally long death trap known as "no man's land." Because of this and the issues building up between France and Germany at the time of this film's release (1937), it is crucial to have a slight understanding of the background between these two very proud but somewhat stubborn nations. With this in mind, it is much easier to see why these characters act the way they do: they are living in the past at a time when the whole world is shifting from the Victorian to the modern period.
From a historical perspective, this film is fascinating in terms of understanding these characters' backgrounds and motivations. This assists in appreciating the film from a cinematic perspective, which is just as easy to do. Renoir films have a way of sneaking up on the audience as they tend to start out slowly, then gradually progress forward until they pack such an emotional and visceral wallop that you are hooked to the end. Here, Renoir uses his camera as a tool of information, panning over the various French prisoners and German soldiers, showing us numerous examples of how these peoples have much more in common than they would like to admit. Indeed, there is a great spirit of camaraderie as the Germans are more often than not somewhat civil to their French POWs. Renoir is telling us here that WWI could very well have been avoided and another world war needed to be treated the same. Along with beautiful camera work, the dialogue works at such a harmonious pace that it is just so wonderful to listen to these people talk. This is a rare occurrence amongst films today, so it must be appreciated.
Overall, this is an exciting film not only for its cinematic value but also its value as a historical archive. It is a great instructive tool as an introduction into WWI and the modern era. It is also a touching and powerful story about friendship, loyalty and civility. Whether it is a pure anti-war film or not is to diminish its overall quality. Renoir is able to penetrate much deeper than just the surface.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Don't get me wrong, I love this film, but I don't see it being one of the greatest films of all time. It was pretty hard to watch and get through. It's not the fact that it was made in 1937 by French director Jean Renoir for a French speaking audience, and I can't relate to the film due to its aged and language. It's the fact that the film's themes put me in odds and the editing was just horrible. It's not the director or the editor at the time fault. It was World War 2's fault. For many years, the original nitrate film negative was thought to have been lost in an Allied air raid in 1942. Then, it was revealed that the original negative had been shipped to Berlin during the Nazis control of France due to the ban of the film during WWII. Then in Cold War, Berlin in 1945, the film was controlled by the Soviet's zone and consequently shipped along with many other films to Moscow. The negative was returned to France in the 1960s, but sat unidentified in storage for years. In the early 1990's, it was found, restored, and re-released in the United States in 1999. Overall, watching the badly damage film getting restored was a blessing, but it didn't make the film any better. Probably in pre-World War 2, the film was pretty amazing, but after World War 2, this film feels like a long lost puzzle just put together, with a few of the original pieces missing. It just doesn't have that same grandeur. La Grande Illusion is about a small group of French officers who are captured during World War I and are plotting an escape from a German prison camp. The title of the film comes from the book, The Great Illusion by British economist Norman Angell, which argued that war was futile and pointless. One thing, I do love about this movie is that there is no all-good and all-bad type characters in this film. The Germans were portrayed in a mostly positive light, and not like negative evil madmen like other war films do. Elsa (Dita Parlo) had a very powerful scene about talking about how big the table is, now. It really hit you, when you see how the toll of the war has cause this woman, so much pain. Erich von Stroheim as Captain von Raufeenstein, the warden of the prison had great acting. You can tell through his acting that the character felt pain, not only because of what happen to his body, but also to what is happening in the world. The French characters like aristocratic Captain De Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), working-class Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Wealthy Jew, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) were all great in their roles. The film was generously humanistic to its character of various nationalities. Still, the movie has this odd tell rather than show moments. There is a scene in the beginning, where De Boeldieu and Marechal are going to do an air reconnaissance before captured, and a minute later, they are sitting down with Captain von Rauffenstein for dinner, captured. Where is the scene where they get shot down? They talk about it, but we, the audience don't see it. It was a bad jump cut. Even in the meal scene, the music cuts off pretty oddly to show people do die in this war, as symbolism by the funeral wreath, but still it's awkwardly cut. There are hundreds of badly made cuts in this film. Then, there was a vaudeville-type performance that was pretty weird, that remind me of 1963's Great Escape and 1953's Stalag 17 type humor. I do like the 'LA Marseillaise' scene that remind me of 1942's Casablanca. Still, most of the film felt like watching Hogan Heroes, then a real life movie about prison camps. The different between Great Escape, Stalag 17 and this movie is that this movie fails to make the prisoner-of-war camp look a place, you want to escape. Yes, the guards here were kinda mean, but in no ways, brutal like other two films. The prisoners were living in a castle, no less, better off, then the soldiers living in the trenches at the time. The film loves to say that there is a language barrier between the characters, but throughout the film, the characters understood each other more than I did, watching. The movies go quickly with the French, German, Russian and English dialogue, it does get confusing. The English seem out of place. There is a scene where Boeldieu and Von Rauffenstein spoke English for some odd reason. When did this English speaking came from in the film? I don't know how Maréchal is unable to pass word of the tunnel to an incoming British prisoner, when Boeldieu speak English. Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, are aristocrats represented as cosmopolitan men, educated in many cultures and conversant in several languages. In true life actor Erich von Stroheim didn't speak a word of German. The film would be easier for the audience to understand if they stick with just French. Indeed, watch the film with sub-titles. You need them. I do like the message that critique the romantic idealization of duty, by showing how the aristocrat old order of European civilization has died in this war. I love the symbolism of the flower in the prison. I do like how the movie fights against the anti-Jewish campaign enacted by Adolf Hitler's government at the time, by making Rosenthal looks like a good man. Overall, this film does one thing right, it shows a realistic interpretation of the relationships of soldiers fighting a politician's war. That is why it's one of the great movies of all time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Renoir paints a picture of a different world - this is way before Nazis
and Hitler changed our perception of German soldiers, in WW1 there were
actually old-school army gentlemen who would honor the enemy, shake
hands and apologize for inconvenience. So we have characters of obvious
aristocratic background behaving like gentlemen towards each other even
as enemies and working class common soldiers going trough the horrors
of war together. Interestingly, Renoir shows both french war prisoners
and German soldiers with deep understanding of humanity, I dare to say
he shows them all as human and not enemies. Jean Gabin is suffering in
a solitary imprisonment and old German soldier feels sorry for him. His
friends war prisoners are all lovable rascals, just like some of German
"enemies" are simply people mobilized (kids in uniforms marching).
Friendships that grow out of sharing the same circumstances (wealthy
Jew who shares his food with everybody), young German widow who lives
in a house with a big empty table because all of her family had died in
a war. I understand this all too well,because I was in a war myself and
people around me (and probably on the other side) were ex-civilians who
happened to be pulled out of their usual circumstances, postman, the
butcher and such.
There is a very interesting story - divided into several parts - that I won't go into right now,it really has to be seen. It definitely deserves its reputation as masterpiece and one of greatest films ever made. I dare anybody to watch it and not be moved. Its really up there with "The Best Years Of Our Lives" except that its done with European sensibilities and a lot of compassion for both sides. Because it was so famous, Germans banned and seized the copies as soon as they occupied Paris (this turned out to be a blessing in disguise when decades later this copy was found in excellent condition). If in the beginning I was simply following the story, eventually I got so involved that towards the end I found myself crying several times because I loved and understood the characters so well. When Gabin tries to explain (in his bad German) to a German widow "After war.. if me no die.. I come back" I bawled like a baby. Definitely one to watch again.
There is not a single scene which I hated. Grand Illusion has one of those rare touches to it in the film industry. If the full 114 minute edition of it was released in 1937 (and not the butchered one), it would've been guaranteed a Best Picture win. I found the Criterion of it as a godsend (allegedly out of print) and quickly grabbed it before anyone else would get their hands on it. I love this movie to death. It's my new all-time favorite now. Even though I consider "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Pink Floyd The Wall" the greatest films I have ever had the fortune of bearing witness to, Grand Illusion takes the cake. Yet there is so much human decency throughout this film, Grand Illusion would share that cake without hesitation. No-one told me about this movie. Criterion's library made me stumble upon this masterpiece. This film also has a special place in my heart, as the first Criterion movie I ever purchased. If you are depressed, or down, and enjoy foreign films, then watch this movie. If effects last longer than 4 hours, then this movie did a pretty good job on you.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The first thing you need to know is that this WWI POW film has much in
common with The Breakfast Club. But we'll get to that later. Despite
it's masterpiece designation,Grand Illusion is as watchable as many
modern dramas. You don't have to have a PhD in Film Studies to
appreciate the movie.
The film tells the story of Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin) and Captain de Boldieu, two French officers fighting the first world war. Marechal is a pilot and blue collar guy while de Boldieu is an aristocrat. They are shot down by Captain von Rauffenstein, a German aristocrat, while flying a reconnaissance mission. Von Rauffenstein, even in the midst of warfare, gives the officers a distinguished welcome and toasts their arrival, sharing wine with them at his table. Bullets might not care about your station in life, but von Rauffenstein is determined to preserve social order in spite of the chaos.
These opening moments tell us what will be at stake throughout the film. War and captivity to some degree strips combatants of their social standing. But von Rauffenstein will seek to preserve them. He will lay out rules for the men to follow as if they are playing a game. He knows the men will try to escape captivity--it is their role as officers--but he expects de Boldieu to behave in a manner befitting his bloodline. The old order will be preserved. In a conversation late in the film between de Boldieu and von Rauffenstein, they share a recognition that the old order is dying. The German captain is knowingly fighting a losing battle.
In fact, throughout much of the film, the soldiers all treat each other will surprising kindness. The German soldiers are workmanlike and never particularly cruel to their captives. The captives are surrounded by barbed wire and the guards all carry guns, but the mood among the men is generally upbeat. They put on stage productions and the American officers all carry tennis rackets.
If I had not first listened to the spirited introduction by director Jean Renoir included on the DVD, I would have been tempted to view these niceties as ironic, an absurd vision constructed to examine class conflict. But Renoir fought in the war himself and declares that World War I was a conflict fought between gentlemen before Hitler destroyed the "spirit of humanity." As a conflicted pacifist, I don't know whether to be disturbed by this vision of a more tidy war or to realize that Renoir is showing that social niceties could and were preserved in the more subdued prison camps.
And here is where we arrive at The Breakfast Club similarities. You have to think John Hughes watched Grand Illusion a few dozen times while penning his tale of teen angst and clique disintegration. (Incidentally, I always thought the ending of The Breakfast Club was far too rosy. I would have preferred if the movie featured a crushing epilogue in which Bryan (Anthony Michael Hall) shows up at school only to be punched by Emilio Estevez with Molly Ringwald on his arm while Judd Nelson ignores him and Ally Sheedy in the distance crumbles dead leaves with intensity. And is anyone else po'd that Sheedy's conformity is treated as triumphant. But back to Renoir...) Just as five teens discover common bonds while confined to Saturday detention, the prison camp forces the working class, the aristocrat, and people of different races and ethnicity into cooperation with one another. Renoir's vision isn't as pleasantly trite as that of Hughes, but they do share a similar theme.
Renoir seems to conclude that this cross class cooperation is an illusion and unsustainable. Not long after Marechal and the moneyed, Jewish captive Rosenthal leave the camp, they begin shouting at one another and name calling. When Marechal must cut short a war time romance with a German woman and vows to return to her, Rosenthal tells him that the idea is ridiculous and unrealistic. Captivity and conflict have ironically has brought out the better natures in some men. But the disappearance of inter-class struggle and resentment is chimerical.
The director regularly employs long takes and deep focus--objects in the foreground appear as clearly as those in background--in the film. We are given a great deal to observe at any given moment. Because of this, the film rewards multiple viewings. We can observe several actors reacting at once which often forces us to choose where to place our focus. From a technical standpoint, the use of long takes combined with a moving camera are a marvel as they require precision from the actors who must deliver lines without error and always be acting and for the production crew who must remain invisible. Where a director like DePalma will use the long take and appearance of a long take to wow you with his technical mastery, Renoir uses his in service to story. Renoir becomes unobtrusive and the actors, story, and setting solidify in our minds.
Grand Illusion is justifiably labeled a classic, but is also very accessible.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is one of the better foreign films I have seen lately. "Grand
Illusion" is a movie that should be considered a timeless, cinematic
classic. It goes into the human condition, assessing the theme of
friendship as well as the theme of the realities of war. I'm surprised
I can't find a classic like this at a video rental place such as
I really hate to say this but "Grand Illusion" is better than Luis Bunuel's "L'Age "D'Or." I was fortunate to have seen "Grand Illusion" on a public access channel and was surprised to find out how popular it was in the foreign film world. I'd watch this again; it's a great film.
Such is the power of Renoir's The Grand Illusion that the Nazis deemed it (among thousands of other works of art) as being too dangerous to their cause, resulting in the attempted destruction of this masterful film. Fortunately for us, it was saved, preserved, and restored. This is not only one of the great anti-war films of all time, it is an astonishing work of art, expressing humanity's frustration with the idiocy of war. Two French officers (Jean Gabin as Lt. Marechal and Pierre Fresnay as Capt. de Boeldieu) are shot down over Germany by Capt. von Rauffenstein (brilliantly portrayed by Erich von Stroheim). The German officer shows the utmost courtesy to his French prisoners, their rank as officers being one reason. The other reason deals more with the heart of the film; Capt. von Rauffenstein respects Capt. de Boeldieu because of his social standing and his ancestry. The two officers lived under relatively similar circumstances in their civilian lives, and, as a result, have much in common, starting what could, in any other situation, be a wonderful friendship. However, this is war, and that cannot be forgotten. The two men are on opposite sides, and cannot afford to become friends. Humans judge each other based on many things; appearance, social standing, occupation, salary, etc. War judges people on only one thing - whether you will be the one to shoot, or the one who is shot. Both of these men know this, understand this. It is viewed as an almost necessary evil in order to maintain their patriotism and their way of life. This is the underlying theme of the film, but is not the entirety of the film. Renoir expands on his ideas as the story continues, until we are left alone to meditate on the nature and eminent consequences of war. The film is brilliant in its own right, but the performances of Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, and Erich von Stroheim, especially, really bring the movie, and its ideas to life! An exceptional film!
It goes without saying that a film that dares make a social comment can
only be appreciated when the time and/or place is understood. "Grand
Illusion" is of that genre, a film completely woven around the themes of the
old vs. the new order and questions about a soldier's role.
Set primarily in prison camps, the movie explores the world of prisoners
(varied in social status, background and even ethnicity) hell bent on
escape. But more than that, it is a study of "...human characters who were
not stereotypes." (1) Later pictures revolving around prison settings most
assuredly are cast with an eye towards assuring us that each type will be
represented, and in fact often become the butt of jokes because of it. Not
so in director Renoir's case.
There are some very memorable and sometimes startling moments. The
orthopedic device Von Stroheim (as the camp director) sports is very
striking as is his scene (and behavior) in the bar at the very beginning of
the film. There are some surprises regarding the use of languages, and the
scenes involving the camp play are as timeless as a MASH rerun.
There are almost no technical flaws and the acting is superb, if not a bit over the top in the case of Rosenthal (played by Dalio). A scene involving a shooting towards the end of the movie is a stretch when a sub-2 inch automatic is employed, but that is the only (and is a pretty famous) gaffe of note. The movie has been described as occurring in three movements (acquiescence, rebellion and return) (2) and this is a fair notation. The art is how the director seamlessly moves us through this war adventure placed not on the battlefield, but primarily on the set.
(1) Bertin, Celia. 1991. Jean Renoir: A Life In Pictures. John Hopkins Press. Baltimore. (2) Crowther, Bosley. 1967. The Great Films. G. P. Putnam's Sons. New York.
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