Set predominantly in occupied France during the First World War, charismatic mechanic Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin), monocled officer Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and wheeling dealing Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) are pitched together in the same German POW camp, quickly joining forces despite their contrasting classes and backgrounds.
Separated after a successful escape attempt, the trio are recaptured and placed under the watchful eye of German war veteran Van Rauffenstein (Erich Von Stroheim) in his icy, mountaintop fortress. Regardless of their opposing roles, the aristocratic Boeldieu and Rauffenstein share a mutual admiration for each other’s apparent code of honour, even in times of war. However, this cross-country rapport soon confuses loyalties and threatens to split Boeldieu’s allegiance, no longer restricted to mere national borders.
It certainly wouldn’t be hyperbole to laud La Grande Illusion as one of the greatest films about war (rather than a traditional war film) ever made. Declared the ‘Cinematographic Enemy Number One’ by the Nazi Party (notably drawing the attention of Joseph Goebbels) after a prize-winning unveiling at the 4th Venice Film Festival (picking up the award for Best Overall Artistic Contribution and an ironic nomination for the Mussolini Cup – surely the great dictator can’t have seen the film beforehand), Renoir’s melancholy-tinged masterpiece was seen as a potential threat to national patriotism and subsequently outlawed in both Germany and France, with both countries once again preparing for armed conflict.
Key to the film’s impact are the magnificent central performances from Gabin, Fresnay and Von Stroheim, with even the silver-ridden Rauffenstein coming across as a partially-sympathetic victim of war. Also striking is the pioneering, positive portrayal of a Jewish character in the form of Rosenthal, undeniably a sticking point for anti-Semitic viewers of the time.
For those looking to educate themselves in the work of Renoir, one of French cinema’s greatest ever auteurs, this home release of the newly-restored, 75-year-old La Grande Illusion couldn’t have come soon enough.