One of the questions most often asked of a film critic/buff/fan is that hoary old one about desert island movie choices. It's an impossible one to answer definitively, since one's predilection for movies is often governed by factors of mood, experience and life situation.
That said, there are certain movies that, personally speaking, will always be in the frame when it comes to choosing favourites: movies such as Tokyo Story (1953), The Searchers (1952) and Paths of Glory (1957). And movies such as Jean Renoir's masterpiece, La Grande Illusion (1937), now getting the restoration treatment on the 75th anniversary of its release.
Like the aforementioned Paths of Glory, La Grande Illusion is a movie with a strong, anti-war message. But unlike Kubrick's gem, it's an anti-war movie without any battle scenes and mostly set in various German-run POW camps. ''This is a story about human relationships,'' commented Renoir at the time, “expressing the common humanity of men”.
The human relationships in question involve downed French aviators, Maréchal (Gabin), Rosenthal (Dalio) and de Boeldieu (Fresnay); and their German captors, notably Commandant van Rauffenstein (von Stroheim). Maréchal is a no-nonsese mechanic; de Boeldieu and van Rauffenstein derive from aristocrat stock and Rosenthal is a wealthy Jewish banker, yet despite their different social and cultural backgrounds, they find themselves thrust together in a situation of heightened drama. Renoir utilises this scenario to examine issues of war, class and the inevitable decline of the old European order.
This is particularly prevalent in the relationship between van Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu. Wartime enemies, yes, but united by their common backgrounds and shared social experiences. Indeed both recall dinners at Maxim's with equal fondness. ''For a commoner,'' the Frenchman tells the German at one point, ''dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and me, it's a good way out.''
As a former WWI aviator (Gabin wears the director's flying jacket throughout the film) who was awarded the Croix de Guerre, Jean Renoir is familiar with the wartime experiences of these men and he draws remarkable and utterly believable performances from his entire cast, including Dita Parlo in the film's later sequences.
The title of Renoir's masterpiece refers to a thesis by a British economist which commented on the irony that wars are often fought for economic gain but seldom prove to be of any economic benefit. But there are several illusions at work here: the illusion that WWI would be ''the war to end all wars''; the illusion that war can ever be an effective problem-solving tool; and the illusion that men can be divided simply along nationalistic lines.
Most commentators rightly focus on Renoir's humanist message, but La Grande Illusion is also an exciting escape movie that introduces the common tropes of POW yarns (yes, there is a camp concert). Watch out for a scene involving soil dispersal that would later inform The Great Escape (1963); and watch out for a sequence involving the singing of La Marseillaise that would later turn up in Casablanca (1942).
Though set during WWI, Renoir clearly had his eye on the ever-growing spectre of fascism in Europe. Alarmed at the rise of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, Renoir ensured that the character of the nouveau riche Rosenthal would not descend to caricature and, indeed, it's Rosenthal who exhibits enormous generosity within the group by insisting on sharing the lavish food parcels he regularly receives from home.
La Grande Illusion scooped many awards on its release, including prizes at Venice and New York. It also famously became the first foreign language film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. One suspects, however, that Renoir was most proud of the fact that Joseph Goebbels declared the movie to be ''Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1'' and ordered all prints to be destroyed. Luckily the original negative wasn't destroyed but shipped to Berlin where it remained in the Russian zone before being sent back to France. It lay undamaged and unidentified in storage at La Cinémathèque de Toulouse until the 1990s, when they decided to transfer their nitrate collection to the French Film Archive and Renoir's masterpiece was unearthed and refurbished.
Thankfully we'll get the opportunity to savour this gem in all its restored glory on the big screen this week (and next week, when it's released on Blu-ray). Cinema just doesn't get much better than this.