Watching the newly restored and freshly subtitled release of Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), one is struck by how many different things the film is doing — depicting the death throes of a certain phase of European civilization; creating the template for a new genre, the POW comedy-drama; and telling a heartrending anti-war tale without showing a single combat scene.
Set during World War I, that epochal upheaval which historian John Keegan has referred to as "a curiously civilized war," Illusion is an ostensibly simple story about a group of French POWs who, after several failed attempts to escape from various camps, find themselves being held in a mountain fortress for hard cases, a castle run by the courtly but no-nonsense Prussian, Captain Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). Rauffenstein is particularly simpatico toward one of his French captives, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a brother officer from the pan-European upper crust, and displays a more grudging courtesy toward Boeldieu’s comrades, the working-class Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the Jewish Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio).
The film divides into three parts. The first, showing the communal prisoner-of-war life, now seems the most conventional by dint of having been imitated several times over the years. The second part, at the fortress, is where the film really begins to soar.
Von Stroheim gives the performance of his career (with his ghostly butler in Sunset Boulevard running a near second). His Rauffenstein has been physically broken in combat and the neck brace he wears serves to emphasize his military bearing, while the white gloves he uses to cover his burned hands are symbols of his membership in that dying caste of the gentleman officer. His conversations with Boeldieu are both touching and absurd, the two dinosaurs keeping up appearances while the world crumbles around them.
The third part of the film centers around Marechal and Rosenthal, who escape from the fortress. There’s a Waiting for Godot quality to the scenes where, stranded in the countryside, they fight and make up like an old married couple, but the mood shifts once they’re taken in by a young German widow (Dita Parlo) and the film then marches toward a typically rich Renoir denouement. It’s a tragedy with a happy ending, a complex accounting of the dangerous allure of all our illusions.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.