Grand Illusion (1937)

Grand Illusion (1937), directed by Jean Renoir.

We have certain expectations from a French film about French officers in a German POW camp during World War One. Our expectations are upset in this mostly benign view of universal humanity. The prisoners are treated well and the guards are kindly old men. The prisoners have a duty to escape: alas, that's when the shooting starts.

Perhaps the most affecting character is the aristocratic Prussian officer played by Erich von Stroheim, last seen in Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and Sunset Blvd. (1950). A flying ace grounded because of injuries and wearing a neck brace, he is unhappy at being reduced to jailer. He becomes close to a French officer of his own class. Both know that the War is changing everything and that their time is over. Captain de Boeldieu takes this philosophically; Commandant von Rauffenstein is more resentful toward the rising lower classes, and particularly toward the Jews, as you can tell from the way he enunciates Rosenthal.

In some ways this is parallel to the "passing of an age of the world" theme of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and The Blue Max (1966). There will be no room for gentlemen or civilized warfare in the more savage future.

The director emphasized Rosenthal's Jewishness, knowing that it is soon going to matter outside of the 1937 film. The character is played by Marcel Dalio, last seen in Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) and as the croupier in Casablanca (1942) where he doesn't even get screen credit, so rich is that film with European refugees.

Later influences:

Banned first in Germany and Italy, then in France after WW2 started. Anti-war films are bad for national morale.

Renoir was a flier during the war and "everyman" character Jean Gabin wears his old uniform.

My thumbnails are from the Lionsgate/Studiocanal all-region Blu-ray in the odd 24.0hz frame rate. Criterion has a DVD (spine #1!) with commentary track.

These are restored from an original negative thought lost for many decades. It went from Paris to Berlin to Moscow to Toulouse where it sat in a box for 30 years.

Image quality is -- as you would expect -- of variable quality, but is often quite good.