JEAN Renoir’s seminal anti-war masterpiece La Grande Illusion is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a pristine, newly restored digital print.
Following a group of French prisoners of war in World War I, Renoir shows us the route to peace through human solidarity across state and class boundaries.
French and German aristocrats unite over memories of dining at Maxim’s.
The working classes bond over a shared and growing feeling that the war is doomed to drag on and they may not survive it.
But it is also one of the most accomplished pieces of ensemble acting ever seen on film.
The result of course, is one of the finest films ever made.
Jean Gabin, in the lead role of Lieutenant Maréchal, gives one of his finest performances as the working class officer who falls for a young German widow while on the run.
Gabin, an understated naturalist actor, has a style which shuns the staginess and histrionics of the immediate, post silent cinema of the 1930s.
Still regarded as one of the best actors to come out of France since the invention of motion pictures, his reputation as a national icon was cemented in World War II when he won the Médaille militaire and a Croix de guerre fighting in North Africa.
One of the film’s most astonishing performances comes from the silent actor and director Erich von Stroheim as the aristocratic German captain von Rauffenstein.
Rauffenstein, as the captor of the equally aristocratic French captain de Boeldieu, played by Pierre Fresnay, shows us the human tenderness which can exist between enemies. It is a graceful and touching performance.
Fresnay, who was Sir Alec Guinness’s favourite actor by the way, sacrifices himself to help his commoner officers – “A nice present from the French Revolution”, von Rauffenstein pointedly remarks.
Julien Carette provides comic relief as a rumbustious, music hall actor Cartier – a kind of French Arthur Askey.
A notable actor with an equally notable death – he fell asleep smoking a cigarette in 1966, set his nylon shirt on fire and burned to death.
|Jean Gabin in La Grande Illusion|
Dita Parlo, as the widow Elsa, is one of the few non combatants. But it is she who suffers most. As in all wars, it is those who are left behind with their grief who bear the most pain.
Her brief moment of intense happiness when she falls in love with Maréchal is cruelly snatched away from her as he must head for Switzerland and safety. Her sadness and stoical acceptance are moving. His promise to return after the war, blows idly along with the wind which will surely sweep him back to his regiment and his inevitable death.
|Jean Gabin as POW prisoner on the run in La Grande Illusion|
Although Renoir was heavily linked to the Popular Front’s left-leaning politics, this film is not about class struggle but about the shared hopes, fears and desires of all classes.
Its message has not dated. The acting is as good as anything you will see today. And the brand new print makes it as fresh as the first day it was screened in 1937.
In French with English subtitles.
La Grande Illusion is showing at the BFI Southbank until April 19. Then during the Jean Gabin season on May 7, 11 and 19.
To book, go here.
|Erich von Stroheim as the aristocratic Prussian captain von Rauffenstein|