During the First World War two French air force members, played by Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay, are shot down by German aristocrat Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim). Despite the animosity between France and Germany, the three men break bread together and find that they have a lot in common, particularly Rittmeister von Rauffenstein and Captain de Boeldieu (Fresnay). Marechal (Gabin) and Boeldieu are then taken to a POW camp where they get ensconced in a plot with the other prisoners to escape through a tunnel. Fate conspires against them though and they end up transferred to another camp, one run by Rittmeister von Rauffenstein.
Renoir’s prison masterpiece’s greatest scenes are perhaps those that focus on the differences between men, notably those of class and race. The duality in sequences involving von Rauffenstein and Boeldieu, for instance, is central to the depth that makes La Grande Illusion such a multi-layered and rich experience. The two men share class but not race, their attitudes similar but their allegiances divided. With these interactions and so many others Renoir cuts through the very idea of war, telling a personal story that in turn speaks to global concerns.
Whilst something of a humanist treasure the film is also a thrillingly plotted prisoner of war picture that set the blueprint for many films that followed. La Grande Illusion is undeniably historically significant but watching it for the first time, or indeed revisiting it, is not simply fascinating on an academic level. Funny, touching and utterly gripping, La Grande Illusion more than earns its classic status and is a film that will almost certainly endure for many, many years.
This new Blu-ray release from Studio Canal comes courtesy of a recent 4k restoration of the film and reportedly mirrors the earlier French release of the film. Grain is present in the transfer but very much on the light side, the transfer is solid though with no waxyness or signs of insensitive meddling. The transfer is also almost spotless, with little to no sign of any imperfections. The clarity of the image is impressive with excellent definition in the many shades of the black and white image. An excellent disc and an essential purchase.
The extras included on the Blu-ray are also varied and very interesting. Read on for my thoughts on them in full.
· La Petite Marchande d’Allumettes from Jean Renoir (short movie)
A wonderful short (32mins) ‘modern’ fairytale from Renoir which contains a number of visually inventive delights.
· Trailers: 1937 / 1958 (Introduced by Jean Renoir)
The 1958 ‘trailer’ is of most interest as it features the introduction to the film by Jean Renoir which played in front of the film when it was re-released in 1958. It is clear from this introduction as to how important and personal the film was to him and I can highly recommend watching this before the film.
· Françoise Giroud remembers shooting the film
“Script Girl” Françoise Giroudprovides provides a rather touching snapshot of the making of the film, recounting many of the difficulties involved in the on location filming and a number of anecdotes relating to the on set relationships.
· Introduction by Ginette Vincendeau
A general look at the film from French film expert Ginette Vincendeau, providing a nice overview of the film. Perhaps more suitable as an ‘outro’ to a first viewing of the film rather than an ‘intro’ though.
· Success and controversy by Olivier Curchod
Curchod discusses the controversy that surrounded the film, particularly in 1945 but also the confusion regarding perceived racism that plagued the film in the years that followed. Curchod is knowledgeable and offers some very interesting insights in this 22 minute feature.
· John Truby talks about La Grande Illusion
Described in the on-screen titles as a “Script Doctor” Truby talks about some of the deft writing that help make La Grande Illusion such a memorable film. The feature is only a little over 4 minutes so there is not too much detail here but a lot more can be found elsewhere on the disc.
· Restoring La Grande Illusion (Images only)
Just over 3 minutes of footage with side wipes showing the difference between the original source material and this new restoration. The images provide pretty remarkable examples of the excellent work done here.
· The story of the original negative (by la Cinemathèque de Toulouse)
An interview which discusses the story of the original negative and its restoration for this 2012 release. The interview is both of interest for anyone seeking more information on this film in particular but it is also of interest regarding restorations in general. There is a moment near the end, for instance, when Natacha Laurent says the following,
It’s important to say that a restoration is never definitive. It’s a basic principle in art and in cinema history that restoration is always an appraisal of the state of repair at a given moment, using our knowledge and technological skills to ensure that the film emerges enhanced, but not transformed. So that’s restoration too. Respecting the artist’s initial work, while making it visible and accessible in the best conditions for generations using new techniques.
Wise words and ones that are so often ignored by many studios and distributors.
La Grande Illusion is available to buy or rent on Blu-ray now.