Jean Renoir’s best known film is given a magnifique 2012 transfer that makes it look brand new. This 1937 look at soldiers during World War I is a story that has relevance no matter what the decade or the war.
The Blu-ray edition invites rediscovery by the uninitiated but will probably earn applause of aficionados because it truly looks as good as the day it was first shown.
During World War I, a plane is down by German Capt. Von Rauffenstein (Erich Von Stroheim). Frenchmen Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin) is the working class pilot who was tasked with taking up the aristocratic Capt. De Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) in his plane for reconnaissance. They have ended up as Germany’s prisoners although they are treated as friends as Rauffenstein invites them to lunch after being shot down.
Rauffenstein even has socialized with De Boeldieu’s brother. Lunch is interrupted as Marechal and De Boeldieu are taken to Hallenback Officer’s camp. This camp finds the French better cared for than other nationalities thanks to care packages from home. It’s every prisoner’s duty to escape so the Frenchmen are digging a tunnel for that purpose. It’s nearly down when everyone is dispersed to other camps and Marechal and De Boeldieu find themselves sent to an imposing fortress prison that is ran by Rauffenstein, but escape is still on their minds.
Director Jean Renoir’s contemplative masterpiece comes to Blu-ray and has never looked better thanks to a 2012 transfer from the original negative. The discovery of it is a great escape story in itself as during World War II the Nazis took destroying the negative of this film during their occupancy of Paris as a top priority. Destruction didn’t happen but the negative did wing its way into Russia and wound up there. A meeting of the minds between two film preservationists, primarily to feature Russian cinema in France, got the negative back to its homeland and it has been gloriously restored for this new release.
The short special features showing the side-by-side comparison shows how fantastic it looks now. The film is about war only tangentially but really more about class differences, human relationships, and race relations. It may be cloaked in a “great escape” like drama but its themes run deeper than that and they’re a joy to behold. Certainly Le Grande Illusion is a classic film of cinema that will cause thought for years to come for those willing to discover it.
Le Grand Illusion is presented in fullscreen. Special features (the majority in French with English subtitles but all in high def) include the 4 minute 1937 trailer, the 5 minute 1958 reissue trailer, a 12 minute introduction by author Ginette Vincendeau, the 12 minute remarkable story of where and how the original negative was found, the 23 minute “Success and Controversy” by film historian Olivier Curchod, the 4 minute talk from screenwriter John Truby talking about the film (the only thing in English), and a 3 minute side-by-side comparison of the restoration.
Le Grande Illusion is certainly grand and this restoration also elevates the film to its past grandeur. If you’re either a fan of classic cinema, French cinema, or Renoir then you must add this to your collection.
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