Today: February 23, 2024

La Grande Illusion

La Grande Illusion, the undisputed masterpiece by pioneering French filmmaker Jean Renoir and looks better now than it ever has thanks to a breathtaking restoration.

La Grande Illusion, the undisputed masterpiece by pioneering French
filmmaker
Jean Renoir and looks
better now than it ever has thanks to a breathtaking restoration.
Famously an inspiration to future
directing giants including Orson Welles
and Martin Scorsese, in 75 years La
Grande Illusion has lost none of its ability to move and surprise.

Based on true accounts
of the First World War, including Renoir’s personal recollections, the story
sees Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay),
Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin) and
Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio)
captured behind enemy lines by the aristocratic Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). They are put in a POW camp, and after
an escape attempt are remanded at a maximum-security fortress, under Rauffenstein’s
command.

The colourful and
contrasting characters that populate the story help make every scene gripping
and entertaining. The great von
Stroheim’s authoritative presence is as palpable as ever, and Fresnay brings an
air of pure courage to the memorable Boeldieu. Little Early Peters
who played the adorable Lotte towards the end of the film, sadly never saw the
finished product, having died tragically from flu only weeks before the
premiere.

Upon release in 1937 the
film was considered a controversial and subversive indictment of war, prompting
Joseph Goebbels to refer to Renoir
as ‘Cinematic Public Enemy Number One’.
Although eventually banned in Italy, La Grande Illusion was so well
received at the Venice Film Festival that a new award called the Grand Jury
Prize was devised and bestowed upon it, to avoid giving it the Mussolini Prize!

What sets the film apart
from most war films is the way in which soldiers from both sides are presented
with equal sympathy. French and
Germans alike are portrayed as dutiful patriots, all too aware of the absurdity
and human cost of the great conflict in which they find themselves. The gentlemanly friendship between the
well-mannered but fearless Boeldieu and the weary von Rauffenstein, painfully
highlights the tragedy of would-be comrades cruelly pitted against each other
by a seemingly endless war.

From his brilliantly
choreographed camerawork to his intricate building of tension and character, Renoir’s
cinematic influence has echoed throughout the 20th Century. When even the genius behind Citizen Kane calls a film the greatest
ever made, there’s no taking it lightly!
To this day La Grande Illusion is an innovative and essential classic,
making the opportunity to revisit or discover it for the first time,
unmissable.

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