There’s always a risk of disappointment when one finally gets to see an established classic for the first time and there’s been more than one occasion that I’ve left the cinema feeling a bit “is that it?” after seeing a gilt-edged critical favourite. Jean Renoir’s 1937 prison camp drama La Grande Illusion is about as highly and universally lauded as films ever get so I was slightly apprehensive on going in to see its 75th anniversary re-release the other night, but all turned out well – this is a touchstone film that really does live up to its formidable reputation.
La Grande Illusion is set during the First World War and concerns the fortunes of a group of French prisoners-of-war in a succession of German stalags. Right from the start an easy and relaxed atmosphere pervades the proceedings, with a dramatic aircraft capture happening offscreen and polite, even convivial, relations being shown between the airmen and their hosts. Representatives of a wide cross-section of society are present in the camp (the working man, the aristocrat, the nouveau riche businessman) but all of them are depicted as civilised compassionate men and none of them are mouthpieces for crass reductions of opposing political viewpoints. The early sections of the film present an unusually cosy and unthreatening version of prison life, with the guards tolerating a high level of dissent and freedom of speech (I hadn’t realised that Casablanca lifted the scene showing resistance fighters defiantly singing Le Marseillaise to German officers directly from here), but this is a necessary prelude to events later on, when three of the prisoners are transferred to a high security camp located within an imposing and seemingly escape-proof castle and find themselves having to make terrible sacrifices and undergo soul-testing ordeals in order to survive and win freedom.
The film’s success is something to do with its director’s lightness of touch and total disinterest in contriving and exploiting emotionally manipulative situations and heavyhanded polarising conflicts. This is, apart from anything else, a very funny film for most of its running time, and every single character is allowed to retain their dignity, with even Erich von Stroheim’s prison commander being painted as a decent and humane, if somewhat misguided, man despite his villainous appearance and trappings. Most of all, La Grande Illusion is a humanist masterpiece, showing clearly the need for people to connect across cultural and class barriers and the immense benefits when they do so. It’s no wonder the Nazis tried to suppress the film.
The new anniversary print has been struck from an original camera negative and fully restored and it’s a thing of wonder to behold: clean, clear, crisp high-contrast black-and-white with only one or two slightly abrupt edits between scenes to distract one from the drama. Definitely the best film I’ve seen this year, and probably not far off the best film I’ve seen any year – go see it as soon as you can.