- Wednesday, 04 April 2012
What kind of film ends up, year after year, on the list of the ten greatest movies ever made?
Somewhere on those lists, particularly if compiled by someone over 50, you’ll probably find La Règle du Jeux (1939) or La Grande Illusion (1937), both directed by Jean Renoir, the son of the Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir.
After seeing the newly restored and digitised print of the La Grande Illusion, which will be released in selected cinemas this week, and on Blu-Ray and DVD on 23 April, you’ll want to add it to your top-ten list, too.
The restoration was carried out for the 75th anniversary of this, arguably the greatest indictment of war (without any battle scenes), and reflection on social class, ever made. The miracle isn’t that the film is still a masterpiece after 75 years, but that it exists at all.
The original negative had undergone certain cuts by the original censor, but after the film won a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1937, it was banned by the Nazis, by occupied France and by Fascist Italy. During WWII, the negative was moved and presumed destroyed by bombs. Renoir spent the rest of his life trying to find the original negative and to recover the rights to the film.
The negative had been transported to Berlin’s Reichfilmarchiv by the Nazi’s who had branded the film ‘Cinematographic Enemy Number One’. This German archive happened to be located in the Russian zone of divided Berlin and, when discovered there, was taken to Moscow.
It was returned to France in the 1960s, but lay buried in La Cinémathèque de Toulouse until it was identified and restored in the 1990s. Last year, the original nitrate negative was digitised at high resolution and it’s that brand new version that you’ll be seeing in cinemas and on DVD/Blu-Ray.
Like all masterpieces, the film is about more than war, a universal, worthy and thought-provoking subject though it is. Renoir, born into a wealthy family, also reflects on the twilight of European aristocracy as we know it (a kind of French Brideshead Revisited), male friendship, honour, Camus’ ‘measure’, and the nature of social classes.
Three French soldiers, the Aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a mechanic from Paris’ down-market 20th arrondissement, Lieutenant Maréchal (the box-office star, Jean Gabin) and a wealthy Jewish banker (who speaks fluent German), Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), find themselves together for 18 months as prisoners of war in WWI. After escaping from one POW camp, they are recaptured and reunited in a medieval fortress commanded by Van Rauffenstein (the great actor/director, Erich Von Stroheim).
A German aristocrat who has lost his sense of purpose the war (‘I used to be a fighter, now I am a policeman’) and in the 20th Century, Van Rauffenstein has more in common with Boeldieu than with the German soldiers he commands.
But Boeldieu, accepts that his social order must be sacrificed. An enlightened visionary and patriot, he plans to use Van Rauffenstein’s prejudices to help Maréchal and Rosenthal escape. Chatting with Rauffenstein, Boeldieu rationalises, ‘For commoners it’s terrible to die in war; for you and me, it’s a good solution.’
The final third of the film deals with the bonds of friendship and love that grow out of relationships between Christian and Jew and between a French commoner and a German farmer’s wife. Renoir suggests, in a metaphorical discussion at the Swiss border, that, just as the boundary between Germany and free Switzerland is ‘a human invention’ and nature ‘couldn’t give a damn’, so it is for human nature to cross the artificial boundaries society constructs.
If La Grande Illusion looks familiar it’s only because it’s been copied in one form or another by hundreds of directors and writers since its various international releases.
Few if any films since, however, have captured its scope, humanity, or been able to synthesize, in one film, its wide reaching themes.
by Joyce Glasser, Mature Times film critic
Robert Tanitch reviews the latest DVDs - 24 April 2012