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"Excepting All Quiet on the Western Front , I had not seen a single film giving a true picture of the men who did the fighting," said director Jean Renoir who made every effort to bring that perspective to his film Grand Illusion (1937).
Renoir's masterpiece Grand Illusion is about the human beings behind the enormous national conflicts of war. The film follows a group of three French officers, working class Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin), nouveau riche Jew Rosenthal (Dalio) and aristocrat Capt. de Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay) detained in a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. Renoir examines the fierce bonds that unite the captive French soldiers, even beyond class lines. But perhaps most surprisingly, he highlights the kindness and dignity that develops between these prisoners and their captors, specifically the relationship between the aristocratic German commander of the Wintersborn POW camp Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), and the well-born Boieldieu. When Marechal and Rosenthal plot their escape from Wintersborn, Boieldieu is unable to join them. Bound by unspoken rules of etiquette and gentlemanly conduct, he decides to remain behind rather than betray Von Rauffenstein's trust.
When Marechal and Rosenthal finally do escape, they find shelter in the remote farm home of a little German girl and her mother Elsa (Dita Parlo, star of L'Atalante, 1934), who has been widowed by the war and lost her brothers in battle. A relationship develops between Marechal and Elsa, but as it does so often in Renoir's film, war inevitably comes between the couple.
Though Renoir's powerful film has become a highly regarded film classic, it was initially difficult to find a producer. The film was shopped around for three years before Gabin was finally able to get it produced.
Grand Illusion was banned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels and the Germans destroyed prints of the film save one negative, unearthed by American troops in Munich in 1945. Enhancing the veracity and the globalist message of the film, Renoir had all of the actors speak in their native language. The son of Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, Renoir further demonstrated his artful realism with the use of exterior locations to add realism and long takes to allow scenes to unfold uninterrupted by jarring cutting. Critic Andre Bazin remarked that Renoir could "reveal the hidden meaning in people and things without disturbing the natural unity to them."
Grand Illusion was the first foreign film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (though it lost to Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You (1938). Also a huge success in France, the film won an award at the Venice Film Festival of 1937 for best artistic ensemble, created especially for the film. The Americans were fans as well, with President Roosevelt pronouncing "everyone who believes in democracy should see this film."
Von Stroheim, one of the great misunderstood and unappreciated geniuses of American film history (many objected to his very European sensibility with his realistic approach to sex and marriage) was an acknowledged influence on Renoir's work and greatly admired by the French who awarded him the Legion of Honor. He was so welcome a member of the cast, Renoir allowed him to make essential additions to Rauffenstein's costume and to greatly expand his role in the film. To bolster an initially more limited role in which the actor appeared only in the first half of Grand Illusion, Von Stroheim was allowed to add Rauffenstein to the second half of the drama at the Wintersborn prison camp, which in turn added a poetic dimension to the film, particularly in the relationship between Boieldieu and Rauffenstein. Von Stroheim remarked "I have never found a more sympathetic, understanding and artistic director and friend than Jean Renoir."
Producer: Albert Pinkovitch, Frank Rollmer
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir, Charles Spaak
Cinematography: Christian Matras
Film Editing: Marthe Huguet, Renee Lichtig, Marguerite Renoir
Art Direction: Eugene Lourie
Music: Joesph Kosma
Cast: Jean Gabin (Lt. Marechal), Dita Parlo (Elsa), Pierre Fresnay (Capt. De Boieldieu), Erich von Stroheim (Capt. von Rauffenstein), Julien Carette (The Showoff), Georges Peclet (an Officer).
by Felicia Feaster