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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/5/00

Grand Illusion
1937 (1999) - Canal + Image International (Criterion)

review by Florian Kummert of The Digital Bits

Grand Illusion: Criterion Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B/A-

Specs and Features

114 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch 57.05, in chapter 11), Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie, theatrical trailer, archival radio presentation, press book excerpts, restoration demonstration, film-themed menu screens, scene access (17 chapters), languages: French and German with some English and Russian (DD 1.0), subtitles: English

Orson Welles once said that if he had one film in the world to save, it would be Grand Illusion. In 1937, Jean Renoir, the naturalistic master of French cinema, created a seminal anti-war movie that did away with simplistic depictions of good versus evil and celebrated the human spirit like no other movie of its time. Unlike Saving Private Ryan, Renoir's film unfolds its narrative far away from gritty battlefields and sites of mass destruction. Set in German POW camps, Grand Illusion tells the story of three French prisoners pursuing their ultimate illusion - escape from the prison to continue fighting for France. However the film deals not only with the distinction of nationality, but also with class barriers - something that seems much more insurmountable.

Two career officers, the German nobleman von Rauffenstein (played by the legendary Erich von Stroheim) and his French prisoner, Captain de Boeldieu, become unlikely friends. The "Great War," they realize, will put an end to the old traditions - to the ruling era of aristocrats - and will install the rule of the common people. Their vision of an honorary war is outdated. "The end of the war," notes von Rauffenstein, "will be the end of us." But the film also tells the story of the common people. Maréchal, a simple mechanic and his friend Rosenthal, a Jewish banker's son, live in relative harmony with the captain and the German guards. But it's an illusion, and they know that. Outside the prison camp, a different world waits for them.

Renoir's film is a great, very humanistic view of the world. And it's a brave one. Shot during the months preceding World War II, when Germany was chain rattling under Hitler's rule, this vision seemed especially futile. But Renoir clung to it and he realized his dream. In effect, he created a masterful, powerful movie about friendship, love, sacrifice and illusion. Both the French AND the German soldiers are presented here as three-dimensional human beings. Being a German myself, I have to say that this was the first time that I've seen a depiction of a German soldier in a foreign movie that wasn't a cardboard imitation of an evil monster.

Grand Illusion shines with a wonderful cast. Jean Gabin (as Maréchal) plays his character with enormous grace and ease. Eric Von Strohheim (Sunset Boulevard) and Pierre Fresnay perfectly capture the dignity of a doomed aristocracy. This fine cast makes this film even more of a classic.

The Criterion DVD release of Grand Illusion is a winner. The film was supposed to be Criterion's first venture into the DVD market, but the print from the newly discovered camera negative didn't meet their expectations. The DVD was postponed, while months were spent upon cleaning up all the scratches. As a result, the full-frame image is stunning and absolutely clean. Blacks are very rich and deep. The contrast is well balanced. Criterion's new digital transfer was painstakingly created from the long-lost camera negative, for decades believed destroyed by the Nazis during the occupation of France. It looks wonderful - this DVD was well worth any wait.

The mono soundtrack is not quite as stellar, though. I had a hard time understanding some of the German dialogue. Given the film's age, and knowing the attention to detail Criterion is legendary for, this is probably the best this film is ever going to sound. Renoir used a unique mix of different languages in his films. Characters speak French, German, English and Russian. The language potpourri never feels distracting, but rather comes across as realistic and charming. Criterion created a new English subtitle track in white letters, which is easily readable and beautifully translated, preserving the puns and wit of the dialogue.

The disc also shines when it comes to the supplemental material. It includes a charming 1957 re-release trailer, in which Jean Renoir talks about the then newly-discovered elements of an uncut edit of the film and relates his own war experiences. The folks at Criterion also added an archival radio segment of Renoir and von Stroheim accepting the Best Foreign Film honors at the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards. There are some excerpts from the original press book, but this is only the start of a supply of good reading material. Included is a paragraph on Renoir by von Stroheim, essays about the film's title, the recently recovered camera negative (with a short, but visually poignant, clip on the restoration process of the camera negative) and full cast bios. Add to that the usually brilliant Criterion audio commentary, this time by noted English film historian Peter Cowie (which was originally produced for the 1987 laserdisc), and you have a very special edition. Cowie, by the way, is a fountain of information on Renoir and the film. He offers many screen-specific stories and insights into the production.

Once again, Criterion has carefully restored a true masterpiece. They've produced an outstanding collector's edition that even Jean Renoir himself would be proud of. This is a beauty of a DVD, and it's one that any serious film fan should add to their collection.

Florian Kummert
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