Grand Illusion: Essential Art House

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  • Jean Renoir’s pacifist masterpiece stars Jean Gabin as a French World War I POW held by Erich Von Stroheim’sGerman captain. One of the greatest antiwar films ever made, as well as a rousing prison-escape adventure, Grand Illusion is an exemplar of the 1930s poetic realist movement. Format: DVD MOVIE Genre: DRAMA Rating: NR Age: 715515032629 UPC: 715515032629

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Jean Renoir’s pacifist masterpiece stars Jean Gabin as a French World War I POW held by Erich Von Stroheim’s German captain. One of the greatest antiwar films ever made, as well as a rousing prison-escape adventure, Grand Illusion is an exemplar of the 1930s poetic realist movement…. More >>

Grand Illusion: Essential Art House

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  1. If you have never seen this film, picture this: Erich von Stroheim as “Rauffenstein” sitting at a table in his commandant’s uniform, wearing a neck brace and white gloves. “Marechal” (played by Jean Gabin), his French prisoner of war, stands before him. The German commandant, report in hand, reads aloud the fact that Marechal has 5 previous escape attempts. He shakes his head, as he continues readings, one time “disguised as a woman”, referring to Marechal’s escape exploits. “Amusing, very amusing.” To which a smiling Marechal responds, “But less so when a NCO tried to pick me up. That I didn’t like!” Commandant: “Indeed?” Marechal, still smiling: “I assure you.” This is the tone of this film for those amongst you who only know this is supposed to be a great film, but know little about it. In essence, it’s a contrast between social classes, of an aristocratic age giving way to working class reality. Early in the film Marechal and his compatriot Boldieu, having been shot down by Rauffenstein himself, are invited to dine with their captor, thanks to Boldieu’s aristocratic status. So this subsequent scene is a reunion of sorts. As the film progresses we see Rauffenstein reach out to Bolieu as a fellow career officer and aristocrat. Boldieu, however, in the end, sacrifices himself for his fellow countrymen; showing that nationalism is stronger than class. The director, laments this, and it is this which is the point of the film. That said, is this a great film? (That’s why you’re reading this, I presume; to gauge whether this film might interest you or not.) I would posit that the message herein, as indicated above, is the primary reason this film is raved about; Jean Renoir’s deft direction notwithstanding. The substance of the film, conversely, is less grand. First of all, this military film is peopled primarily by officers only. Moreover, the POW camp environments depicted herein are rather comfortable looking. The prisoners eat well (thanks, in part, to some food parcels from home), they have books, they appear in clean uniforms, etc. They even receive a huge crate from home full of ladies clothing—dresses, shoes, wigs, corsets, the works!—so that they (for some reason, primarily only British soldiers in this French production!) can put on a cabaret drag show. Presumably, this is supposed to boost morale, but if anything the life these prisoners seem to lead is far too cheerful; full of cheekiness too. To boot, as their escape tunnel nears completion, some even express mixed feelings about leaving their camp! (Incidentally, this is not an “escape” film, however much this review may seem otherwise. They talk about it a bit, and prepare for it little more. But we only see one escape attempt in this film and that consists of two soldiers going over a wall.) That few seem especially keen on escaping is actually logical, in the sense that few of these soldiers are seemingly interested in fighting anyway—director’s commentary on the idiocy of war, I assume. Jean Renoir did declare himself a pacifist, after all, around the time he made this film. So there you have it—a great film if you’re so inclined as well; otherwise, judging this film on cinematic grounds only, not as substantial as its reputation. Cheers!
    Rating: 3 / 5

  2. I’ve seen this several times and will see it many more. As video format technology changes, this is one of the ones I buy again and again. Drama, suspense, humor, chivalry, and a splash of romance are all here, wonderfully acted and brilliantly directed.
    Rating: 5 / 5

  3. “The Grand Illusion” (1937) could mean to represent many things. As one of the escapees mentions at the end, nature has no borders, those are artificial things made by people. Mankind creates many illusions, and Renoir invites us to ask what is the grandest illusion of them all. The film deals with many aspects of class, ethnicity, language, and focuses on the arbitrariness of these differences. These people all know that the war will end, and that a new era will be ushered in that will be more democratic, and that the age of aristocracies will come to an end.

    The film is a realist fantasy that Jean Renoir created which focused on the humanity, and friendships, of the people. We don’t really see much in the way of fighting, or any other such things, which are common to most war films. The little fighting that does occur lacks any of the drama often depicted in war films. The drama of war is not glorified here since it has no value for Renoir. He is interested in the people, not the drama of war. Goebbels cited the movie as being the “Cinematic Public Enemy No.1”. This film was dangerous for the German war effort because it showed that those who were not German were human too. For Renoir, war, and its creation of false beliefs and goals, was a grand illusion.
    Rating: 4 / 5

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