1937 (1938 US), World Pictures. Directed by Jean Renoir. Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Marcel Dalio.
Decent Films Ratings
|?Teens & Up|
Content advisory: A comic burlesque-like sequence involving soldiers in drag; references to adultery and an implied sexual encounter. Subtitles.
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Grand Illusion (DVD)
By Steven D. Greydanus
How perilously easy it is for a filmmaker aspiring to make some point about humanistic values to undercut those very values by vilifying or ridiculing characters deemed less enlightened.
Perhaps the single most remarkable thing about Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir’s classic pre-WWII WWI masterpiece, is that it practices rather than preaches its rigorous humanism, regarding every character with sympathy and nuance. German or French, noble or common, Gentile or Jew, man or woman — all are simply human in this semi-comic tale of civilized warfare at the end of the age of nobility. Characters on both sides of these divides display various forms of prejudice, from antisemitism to class-based snobbery, but none is reviled or scorned.
The loose narrative follows a number of Allied POWs as they seek to escape from the custody of an almost morbidly aristocratic German officer named von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim) who treats captured enemy officers as honored guests and disdains commoners on both sides.
Watching Grand Illusion, it’s not hard to imagine a different version of this film by some other director with von Rauffenstein as a Colonel Klink-like absurdity, but not here: Despite his deluded notions, he retains his dignity and is even in the end a movingly tragic figure.