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The Criterion Collection presents
Grand Illusion (1938)

"You can't see the borders. They're man-made. Nature could care less."
- Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio)

Review By: Jesse Shanks  
Published: June 08, 2001

Stars: Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim
Other Stars: Marcel Dalio, Julien Carette, Dita Parlo
Director: Jean Renoir

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:52m:18s
Release Date: November 23, 1999
UPC: 037429121924
Genre: war

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- AA-B+ A

DVD Review

I don't know what interest there is for really old movies and by "old," I mean movies that are older than Star Wars. The history of cinema is relatively long and one of the beauties of the DVD is the capability of viewing films from long ago in a form that represents something close to their original conception and in some cases much better than has ever been seen.

Le Grand illusion (Grand Illusion) is directed by legendary French auteur Jean Renoir, the son of painter Pierre Auguste Renoir. It stars many popular figures from the French stage and film of that era and was banned by the Nazis when they came to overwhelme France in World War II. They confiscated prints and attempted to prevent anyone from ever seeing this film again!

What could possibly make the Nazis want to ban it? Well, the theme of Grand Illusion is man's humanity toward man. It explores the experiences of a group of French prisoners of war in a German prison camp during WWI. These are men who are all French officers but come from different classes within the French culture; men who would not cross paths in their normal day-to-day life, now must learn about each other in this unique situation, in order to survive.

This story is a unique experience for the American audience. We know little of the class struggles of Europe, except in the way they have filtered through into our own society. This is a war movie, but there are no battle scenes and hardly a shot fired in anger. Through the conversations and expressions of these actors, we learn things about how people think and feel—this is a rare experience in cinema.

In the first half of the film, we meet the French flyer Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) as he is given the task of flying Captain de Boldieu (Pierre Fresnay) on a reconnaissance mission. They are shot down by a German pilot, Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), and sent to a German prison camp for captured Allied officers. There we meet the other major character of the movie, Lieutenant Morgenthal (Marcel Dalio) from a wealthy French Jewish family, who becomes a close friend of Maréchal. The camp is populated by other well-developed characters, part of Renoir's tapestry of class and race, that come to know and respect each other in the extraordinary situation that war has provided.

Through various relationships, we see comparisons of thought and experience that make up their differences and watch them overcome those differences to develop an extraordinary fellowship. The men work together in attempts to escape, put on silly shows to keep up morale and try to follow the progress of the war. In the latter half of the film, the three French officers end up in a special camp for officers who have attempted to escape, commanded by their old opponent, Rauffenstein. He had been badly burned and, to his utter disappointment, can no longer fly.

The story is told with great subtlety by Renoir with richness of humor and expression in dialogue and careful management of setting and symbolism. There is a crisp modernism in the direction that no doubt influenced many filmmakers to come in the uses of composition and deep focus. Grand Illusion is a triumphant work of cinematic art, with the quality of its execution and the depth of its humanist message. Grand Illusion was the first foreign language film to be nominated for an Academy Award®. There is no doubt that the strength of its vision and the power of its message about the great illusion of war versus the brotherhood of man made it "Cinema Enemy Number One" on the Nazi hit list.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The disc features an incredible restoration job by Criterion and the story of how the film was stolen, lost and found is fascinating in itself. It is hard to imagine a film that had gone through what this one has looking any better on the screen. There are very few moments when one is forced out of the illusion of the drama by a glitch on the screen. A restoration like this allows us to experience the small details of the artistry of the director in set decoration, reflections and depth of composition. This is top-notch film preservation.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The monural soundtrack is in French, German and English, with English subtitles. The sound retains a tinny quality that old films have, but there has been care taken to make the sound consistent and there is very little extraneous noise to be heard in the quiet moments. The music for Grand Illusion is by Renoir favorite Joseph Kosma, famous for his score for Marcel Carnè's Les Enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise).

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Film Historian Peter Cowle
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Archival Radio Presentation: Renoir and Erich von Stroheim accept Grand Illusion's Best foreign Film honors at the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards
  2. Restoration Demonstration
  3. Essay: von Stroheim on Renoir
  4. Essay: On the Title
  5. Essay: The Lost Film Negative
Extras Review: For extras there is an introduction to the film by director Renoir in which he speaks of his goals in making Grand Illusion and his own experiences as a French officer. Included is an interesting radio presentation as two of the principles of the film (Renoir and von Stroheim) receive Film Critic Awards on the eve of the Second World War. Also, a Press Book that includes several fine essays and many details about the film, cast and crew.

There is one of the finest film commentaries I have listened to, by film historian Peter Cowie. With a shot by shot description of ideas and content, Cowle explores Grand Illusion with a wealth of detail about the film and the people who made it. Definitely, this commentary is the equivalent of a high-price seminar on the film and its importance, and is a must for students of cinema.

The examples of the work done on the film in the Restoration Comparison is fascinating viewing.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

Grand Illusion is for viewers who believe that film is an art form. It is for viewers who believe that film is not always just escapist entertainment but rather, can effect change in the watchers of the film. Some have accorded Grand Illusion with the label of the greatest film of all time. I don't necessarily agree with this, but I do agree on its importance in the history of film and the strength of its message. If you love the craft of film, do yourself a favor and give it a viewing. But be warned that once you start expecting films to have depth of feeling, character and come replete with ideas... you can never go back.


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