Opening Friday for a week's run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Jean Renoir's"Grand Illusion" marches in the opposite direction of grand set pieces or visual flamboyance. Its moments of poetry are many but (properly) fleeting, like the shot of the German farm girl sitting alone at a cottage dining table where members of her family, casualties of the Great War, used to eat and talk and plan the day. There may be nobility in the way we live and die in battle, and between battles, but in the end, someone is left alone.
For the 75th anniversary of this 1937 masterwork, the first foreign-language title to receive an Academy Award best picture nomination, Studiocanal has overseen a digital restoration and struck new 35 mm prints with crystalline sound, subtitles of genuine wit and subtlety and an image quality honoring every shade of gray in Renoir's richly expressive black and white universe. I first saw this World War I picture in a high school film class (thank you, Ms. Levendusky), and the calm emotional temperament of Renoir's tragicomedy of manners threw me for a loop then. Thirty-five years and several global conflagrations later, the film seems more crucial than ever — humane and evergreen.
This is a prisoner-of-war film very much on the side of the French, but disarmingly open to appreciation of the aristocratic German flying ace, played by Erich Von Stroheim, who later commands the castle transformed into an allegedly escape-proof POW camp. Von Stroheim finds a kindred spirit in his fellow monocled aristocrat, the French officer played by Pierre Fresnay. Jean Gabin's working-class lieutenant and his fellow prisoner, Rosenthal, played by Marcel Dalio, gradually become the focus of the escape attempts. I'd forgotten just how much of "Grand Illusion" exists outside the confines of barbed wire and armed guards. The interplay between characters both high-born and salt-of-the-earth points ahead to Renoir's supreme achievement, "The Rules of the Game," which came two years after "Grand Illusion" and which intimated a world in flames as only Renoir could: with a glancing touch and an ironic but ever-present empathy with everyone on screen.
"I'd like to resolve this enigma," says one of the men early on, evaluating an aerial surveillance photograph taken across enemy lines. Renoir was quite clear about what he was saying in the film about lost honor and the hypocrisy, however admirable, of behaving well while the bullets fly. The real enigma inside "Grand Illusion" relates to the illusion of a world without enemy lines. It's a dream of a picture in every sense, and considering all who wanted to destroy it — from Nazi propaganda chieftain Joseph Goebbels on down — it is looking very, very good indeed.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:54; in French, German and English with English subtitles.
Opens: Friday (through July 5) at the Gene Siskel Film Center.