Title: La Grande Illusion
I mentioned recently that I wanted to start watching more Criterion classics.
And what better place to start than at the beginning of the list, with this masterpiece by Jean Renoir?
Now, I knew going into this that it was going to be good, but I had no idea it would feel, well, so...contemporary. Volumes have been written about this film (here are two insightful analyses: R Ebert, P Cowie) and others by Renoir so I'll keep my comments short.
Right from the start, I enjoyed the fact that the themes of war and class distinction (which act as kind of cross-beams throughout the film, illuminating notions of human choice and responsibility) were not attacked directly. Situating events in a war camp, after the main action has already taken place, is a simple and effective way of staging the drama of the story without making it heavy-handed.
The performances and production were excellent all around. I suspected that Erich von Stroheim was perhaps having a little bit of difficulty delivering his lines in the correct accent (a decade of living in Germany will allow you to spot something like that). The wiki on him seems to confirm this: "However Jean Renoir writes in his memoirs: “Stroheim spoke hardly any German. He had to study his lines like a schoolboy learning a foreign language.”" In a weird way this improves his performance, by making him more remote, more weary and damaged, more empathetic.
While the first acts of the film are effective, it's really the final act that captivated me. The escape sequence is expertly timed, the photography superb, and the final poignant psychological truths revealed in a seemingly effortless manner. Not to mention the layers of significance and apparent foresight added to the film by subsequent historical events.
The only edition of this film's score by Joseph Kosma includes sound FX and dialog, as heard in the actual film. That's truly a shame. Kosma's work deserves much better. In this age of countless re-releases and re-recordings I hope it's just a question of time before we get a new edition of this score.