Grand Illusion
(La Grande Illusion)

Screening on Film
Directed by Jean Renoir.
With Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Marcel Dalio, Erich von Stroheim.
France, 1937, 35mm, black & white, 114 min.
French, German, English and Russian with English subtitles.
Print source: Rialto Pictures

In 1937, with Europe balanced dangerously on the edge of calamity, Jean Renoir looked back to World War I as the setting for one of his greatest works, the story of a group of French POWs determined to escape from a German prison camp. The group’s tireless effort inspires a solidarity that overrules even the deepest-seated class differences and, most remarkably, the fact that one of the French soldiers is Jewish. The poignant yet troubled bond of class that joins an imprisoned aristocrat—played with supercilious elegance by a dashing Pierre Fresnay—and his titled German jailer, serves both as Renoir’s elegy for European transnationalism and as his tribute to Erich von Stroheim, who reaches deep into his Teutonic imagination to invent perhaps his greatest role as an actor. Balancing poetic realism with a sober farewell to the ancien régime, Renoir brings a luminous pathos to the film’s politics and its fearful acknowledgement of the dark storms brewing once again in Europe. 

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