Monday, September 19, 2011
Criterion Collection Spine #1
France 1937, 114 minutes
Black and White
Directed by Jean Renoir, Grand Illusion is one of the very first films to center its story on a prison escape. Underneath the escape narrative, is a thematic undercurrent that shows the film to also be about aristocracy and class.
Set during WWI, we begin in a bar where French pilots hang out. Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) sees a smudge on an aerial photograph, and wants Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin) to fly over so he can take a closer look. They're shot down and taken to a German mess hall where they meet Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) the man who shot them down. He treats them civilly and invites them to dinner, but they're taken away to prison before they can enjoy his hospitality.
Merechal and de Boldieu find themselves in a POW camp, where they meet some fellow Frenchmen in the same predicament. The camp is strict, anyone caught outside the fences will be shot on sight. Though harsh, these rules don't stop the men from digging an escape tunnel out of camp.
It's in the camp where the class undertones begin to bubble to the surface. Captain de Boeldieu is a career military man, aristocratic families were expected to be in positions of military authority. War was a gentleman's undertaking, but things are changing. Their fellow prisoners are ordinary Frenchmen for the most case, and the one wealthy man, Rosenthal, who isn't, is the son of a immigrant merchant who has risen to a level once reserved only for the aristocracy. They trust Marechal with their plans of escape, but aren't sure they can trust de Boeldieu.
Besides tunneling to freedom, the prisoners spend their time putting on plays for each other. In the middle of one of their performances, they get news that the French have taken an important town. Marechal interrupts the play to announce it, but his patriotism angers his German captors. They throw Marechal in solitary confinement where he breaks down, but is only strengthened in his desire to escape to freedom.
Whenever a plan seems to be going well, there's always a wrench just around the corner. The wrench for Marechal and his friends, is on the day they're ready to escape, they're transferred to a purportedly inescapable prison. It's a castle built on a cliff with machine gun turrets, guard dog patrols, and random inspections. It's run by an injured Captain von Rauffenstein, now looking like a stiff Anakin Skywalker after the Darth Vader mask has been taken off. He hates his job, but its the only way he can be of use to the fatherland.
The added security does nothing to hinder the men's plans of escape. They continue to work on a way to get to the freedom of Switzerland even under the added scrutiny of the castle.
The two men from prominent families, de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein find themselves spending a lot of time in conversation. They're both formal and stand on ceremony, which makes them polite and courteous though they are on opposing sides. They know they're a dying breed, and they "carry on a futile existence". Von Rauffenstein laments that he missed his opportunity to get out of his own futile existence by surviving his airplane crash. He's obsolete and surrounded by ugliness, to combat that, he tends a flower which is the only thing of beauty that grows in the castle.
Their conversations sink in for de Boeldieu. When it comes time for Marechal and Rosenthal to escape, de Boeldieu volunteers to be the distraction that allows them the time they need. He wanders around the castle leading the guards on a wild goose chase, teasing them with a flute. Von Rauffenstein warns him that he'll have to shoot, but de Boeldieu pays no heed. Captain von Rauffenstein means only to wound him with his shot, but his aim is bad, the wound is mortal. It seems the aristocracy dies so that the common man can be free.
It's been over ten years since I'd last seen this film. I remember liking it when I'd watched it before, and now I remember why. Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim are fantastic to watch, as is the gorgeous cinematography. The DVD itself had no extras whatsoever, but the film itself is worth the price.
You can purchase the DVD here: