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Set during the Great War and released while the thunderheads of the next gathered, Grand Illusion depicted the wartime plunge of 1916 while also commenting on its present day of 1937, with Europe on the brink again. Renoir's film, playing Film Forum for two weeks in an incandescent new 4K restoration, concerns two French pilots, working-class Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and aristocratic Captain de Boëldieu (Pierre Fresnay) who, after being downed behind enemy lines by Prussian Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), are passed through German prison camps while the war drags on. Grand Illusion marries Renoir's ambling, sneakily-complex camerawork to performances that show gratitude for the breathing room he encouraged. A card-carrying classic, the film is famed for such rallying moments as an amateur musical revue among the POW's that's interrupted by news of French forces retaking a strategic point in the Battle of Verdun, prompting a celebratory, rebellious outburst of "La Marseillaise."
Here, patriotism is stoked; elsewhere it's transcended. On the road in a hostile German countryside, Lt. Maréchal and fellow escapee Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), son of a nouveau riche family of Jewish financiers, risk taking shelter with a young war widow, Elsa (Dita Parlo), and her little daughter, Lotte. Maréchal knows no German, but flirts with Elsa, learning to haltingly say "Lotte hat blaue Augen" ("Lotte has blue eyes") to the child. Rosenthal speaks fluently, and fondly looks after Lotte, carving the Holy Family from potatoes for Christmas. In knowledge of what is to come, the quiet decency in these scenes is almost unbearably moving: Lotte's blue eyes, which Maréchal talks of as something for a little girl to be innocently proud of, were already a symbol of something else. Might little Lotte grow up to be a Party member, with no memory of the man who had spent Christmas with her?
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Grand Illusion's open ending gives cause for hope, but Renoir's prayer for peace was unanswered. Renoir and Gabin decamped to Hollywood, though the latter eventually served as a tank commander with de Gaulle's Free French in North Africa. Dalio, born Israel Blauschild, fled France in 1939, and when he returned found that his family had disappeared, like so many others. Fresnay alone stayed and worked in surrendered Vichy France for the Nazi-controlled production company Continental Films (though, it should be noted, in that most subversive of Occupation films, Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1943 Le Corbeau).
Grand Illusion's path through the war was no easier. Surviving in various censored and scissored international versions, the definitive Illusion was thought to have been destroyed, either by the Germans — Joseph Goebbels famously declared the film "Cinematographic Enemy no.1" — or in Allied bombing. While Renoir re-assembled his cut from available odds-and-ends for a 1958 re-release, unbeknownst to all interested parties, the original camera negative of Grand Illusion persevered, stowed away in Moscow. The triumphant Red Army had taken it from the Reichsfilmarchiv in Berlin — where it was itself a POW — to Russia; in the '70s, Moscow returned the displaced print to the Cinémathèque de Toulouse in a pile of unmarked, un-inventoried boxes, where it was discovered some 20 years later, gathering dust.
This, 2011's state-of-the-art restoration, is the latest laudable stage in the ongoing physical perfection of Grand Illusion — though the essential spirit of Renoir's film has never dimmed through decades of being projected on bedsheets for college film societies or viewed on deteriorating VHS. Opposing the tectonic grinding of political movements with simple humanity, Grand Illusion's heroic eminence is the nearest thing cinema has to a lone Tiananmen Tank Man.
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