Site created 12/15/97.
review added: 4/5/00
1937 (1999) - Canal +
Image International (Criterion)
review by Florian Kummert
of The Digital Bits
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),
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Their vision of an honorary war is outdated.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.