Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece La Grande Illusion is, without question, the sweetest, kindest antiwar film you’ll ever see.  The story of three Allied POWs trying to escape to freedom during World War I, La Grande Illusion outlines the horrors of war with a gentle touch.  What moments of violence the film contains are brief and – truth be told – almost tender in Renoir’s handling of them.  Life inside the German POW camps is surprisingly civilized, with little of the doom and gloom you might find in a Great Raid or a Bridge on the River Kwai.  Even the film’s prison escape sequences lack the tension of similarly staged material in John Sturges’ 1963 classic The Great Escape; despite the peril surrounding them, Renoir’s heroes go about the business of tunneling to safety and evading German patrols with the pluck of Snow White’s Seven Dwarves, all but whistling while they work.

Like the title, though, it’s all an illusion.  The humor, the kindness: these are the weapons Renoir gives his characters to beat back the darkness of war.  They tell themselves that war has rules, that dignity and humanity will prevail – an early scene even shows Erich von Stroheim’s refined German flyer brunching with two French soldiers he’s just shot down – but Renoir has seen the future, and it holds death by gas and trench warfare and economic depression and Adolf Hitler.  By setting his film during World War I, Renoir makes his characters all the more heroic and tragic, as they vainly preserve a way of life destined for extinction.

For von Stroheim and Pierre Fresnay’s aristocratic adversaries, that way encompasses the regal codes of behavior instilled in them since inception.  Despite playing both sides of the World War I front – von Stroheim’s Captain von Rauffenstein is German, while Fresnay’s Captain Boeldieu is French – these two men share the most intimate relationship in La Grande Illusion, and their union is based on shared experiences.  Both men come from highly regarded families, and von Rauffenstein even remarks that he was friendly with a relative of Boeldieu’s prior to the war.  Each sees in the other man a paragon of breeding, virtue, and taste, but these qualities just don’t scan when war is afoot.

Von Rauffenstein believes in treating his prisoners with respect and courtesy – provided they don’t try to escape – and Boeldieu espouses the same deference to the German commandants – except he considers escape a captured soldier’s sworn duty.  These directives cannot co-exist despite all the goodwill and empathy von Rauffenstein and Boeldieu have for one another, and the eventual resolution of this conflict provides La Grande Illusion with its most unexpectedly affecting moments.

The characters played by Jean Gabin and Marcel Dalio do not harbor the same delusions about class and propriety, but they’re both outsiders; Gabin’s Marechal was a humble mechanic, while Dalio’s Rosenthal is a Jew.  They’re used to the aristocracy sneering at them, so all they care about is freedom, thinking that if they move fast and far enough, they can escape the insanity of war.  It’s a far more pragmatic cause – one not limited by outdated decorum – and we suspect Renoir buys into the mindset of Marechal and Rosenthal because he has them find shelter in the home of a beautiful, lonely German widow (Dita Parlo).  As they two men recuperate in the glow of Parlo and her young daughter, the picture takes on an idyllic, weightless quality, reminiscent of L’Atalante or Renoir’s own Boudu Saved from Drowning, and everything seems clear and safe.

And at that moment, Renoir, gently, and ever so discreetly, guts us.  For you see, such an inhuman concept as war has no rules, no boundaries – Renoir knew that last point all too well by 1937 – and no conception of escape.  That‘s the real grand illusion, that anyone can find safe passage in world corrupted by violence and death, and La Grande Illusion ends the only way it can, with Marechal and Rosenthal on the run, destination unknown.  “This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper,” T.S. Eliot wrote, and it’s the uncertainty of when that whimper will hit that makes living so terrifying.

Lionsgate has licensed the Studio Canal print of La Grande Illusion for this Blu-ray, and the results are stunning.  Details are crisp and clear, with rich textures augmenting Renoir’s stunning depth-of-field photography.  This looks like a 2012 movie in black-and-white; I can’t think of better praise.  The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also a wonder, preserving the age of the original mix while still cleaning up sound distortions and hisses.  This is right up there with Warner Bros.’ wonderful Casablanca restoration.

Features are also terrific.  What we have is over an hour of critical reflections on La Grande Illusion and its impact: an introduction by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau; Natacha Laurent’s “The Original Negative: A Remarkable Story”; “Success and Controversy” by Renoir specialist Olivier Curchod; a piece on the film’s script by script doctor John Truby; and “Restoring La Grande Illusion,” which details the remarkable A/V clean-up.  We also get two trailers – an original from 1937 and the 1958 re-release preview.  This is great, no-fat material.

And how fitting, considering what an important film La Grande Illusion is.  Don’t let Renoir’s soft touch fool you; this is a cynical, sad piece about a dying time and the horrors of war.

La Grande Illusion is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Home Culture Movie Review: LA GRANDE ILLUSION Kindly, Sweetly Outlines the Horrors of War