This film embodies everything that I love about the Criterion Collection.
It is merely circumstantial that it happened to be the very first DVD that the Criterion Collection ever released, a fact I did not know until after setting out to write this article. La Grande Illusion is a film set during World War I. It was directed by one of the masters of French film, Jean Renoir, and was a monumental movie when it was released in 1937.
The film centers around the relations between German, French, English, and Russian troops stationed at various German POW camps. The main focus is on a small group of French prisoners and their various attempts to escape. The most noticeable difference apparent from the very beginning of the film is how cordial the Germans and French are towards each other even though they are enemies. This becomes a very major theme throughout the film and is the focus of the film’s title. This is my very first viewing of this film, very often regarded as the best film ever made, so I am quite sure that many of the films sub-plots and details were missed on this viewing. What was not missed, however, was a major point Renoir was attempting, and succeeded in making, regarding the nature of war.
This theme is most apparent when a German officer is forced to shoot a French officer who is providing a diversion so that his comrades can escape. While on his death bed, the French officer, who has befriended the German officer, tells the German that he would have done the same thing because it is their duty to do so. He then calls their duty a “futile existence.” This scene is powerful in that each man having a mutual respect for one another recognize that were their respective countries not at war, they may have been very good friends. This seems at odds with most war movies that have ever been made which show animosity and hate towards enemies. Renoir, however paints a portrait of men forced to do things against their nature in the name of patriotism. This film is still ahead of its time in the way that it shows a very humanistic element of war where there is no protagonist or antagonist, just soldiers.
Another way this film is monumental is that it is regarded as one of the first ever prison escape films. This genre has been hammered into the ground in our day and age spurring on not only films but television shows and books. The escape element of the film is just as exciting as anything Hollywood has ever produced and with added sentimentality of Renoir’s incredibly realistic characters makes this a film that is very easy to enjoy.
Where the Criterion Collection comes into the picture is in the way the film was restored and released. Fearing that the film would cause Nazi troops to lose their fighting spirit, or actually care about other people in general in this case, Nazi propagandists set out to capture all prints of the film that it could. Most of the prints that were in existence were captured including the original negative. Luckily the negative was not destroyed and sat untouched in various warehouses and vaults, many of the owners not knowing what they actually had. The negative was discovered in the process of restoring the film and resulted in a mountain of restoration work to make the film as pristine as it was in 1937. The film is beautifully shot and the thought of this fantastic piece of art drifting off into oblivion is shocking. That’s why I believe the Criterion Collection is so important. Had this movie not been in the collection, I may have never watched it and I certainly would not have been able to watch in such a clear and pristine light, destroying any and all distractions away from this terribly important film.