At the height of World War I, the German ace aviator, Captain von Rauffenstein, shoots down the plane of the aristocratic French pilot, Captain de Boeldieu, and his co-pilot, the working-class civilian mechanic, Lieutenant Maréchal, during an air-reconnaissance mission. As the captured officers find themselves in the Hallbach POW camp for officers, they befriend the wealthy former Jewish banker, Lieutenant Rosenthal, and along with a handful of determined compatriots, they organise an escape. However, fate has other plans in store for them, and shortly before the implementation of the plan, they are transferred by train to the impregnable Wintersborn fortress-prison in Alsace, France, overseen by Rauffenstein himself. More and more, respect and appreciation bond von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu. But, will this delicate relationship, and the grand illusion, stand in the way of breaking out?Written by
Erich von Stroheim clashed with Jean Renoir in the early days of shooting, and the director later said the actor "behaved intolerably." They had one argument over whether or not there should be prostitutes in the German quarters, a detail Von Stroheim thought would lend greater authenticity but which Renoir rejected as a childish cliche. The dispute so distressed Renoir he burst into tears, which caused Von Stroheim to do the same. They fell into each other's arms, and Renoir said that rather than quarrel with an artist he so greatly admired, he would give up directing the film altogether. Von Stroheim promised from that point on to follow Renoir's instructions to the letter, and he kept his word. Looking back on the production, the actor said, "I have never found a more sympathetic, understanding and artistic director and friend than Jean Renoir." See more »
As the WWI German soldiers are celebrating a French fort's capture, the map on the wall of the officers club is clearly an inter-war (1919-1938) map of Germany. See more »
Il était un petit navire
Traditional French children's song See more »
Classic film on the death of ancient regimes
In the old European order, pre-WWI, one nation's aristocracy made war on another's not out of love for king and country or hatred for the enemy, but out of a sense of honor and duty. War was what they did, these aristocrats of l'ancien regime. Their castles in the air, their noble worldview, their time-honored way--all would crumble, as they very well knew, if the line between the rabble and themselves were allowed to continue to blur. The masses had new and different loyalties.
"La Grande Illusion" in 1914 was the hope that that old order could be preserved in the face of surging democracy and noveau-riche power. Jean Renoir's film presents us with an irony: the martial elites of France and Germany needed the war to vouchsafe their very identities, and yet that conflict would prove their undoing. Whatever side won, the hoi polloi would gain the upper hand.
Restored from its original camera negative, the 1937 French film now on DVD sparkles like new. The restoration lets us see that nothing is dated about this work of genius, even if its POW-camp situations today seem stock and its characters stereotypes of nationality and class. The fine acting, the deft pacing, and the fluid camerawork make for a film that could have been produced last year. The whispered subtext, the nuanced conflicts, and the ironic complexity make for a film that is timeless.
The subtext is the eternal tension between "in the air" and "on the ground," "on high" and "here below," "from a distance" and "up close and personal." From a distance, war is no more rancorous than a chess game, with national boundaries as artificial as the squares on a chessboard. Up close and personal, war separates humans from their lives and aspirations, lovers from their beloveds.
The old elites loved nothing but their class and its accoutrements. It was peasant stock and noveau riche who belted out national anthems and honored the borders which in wartime could sever lover from lover but, paradoxically, also shield prison-camp escapees who made it across them to sanctuary. Renoir's genius was that he could show that an emergent new order, manifestly better on the ground, comes at a steep price, tragically, in the air.
63 of 78 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?
| Report this