Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Retrospective Programming a Hallmark of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF 2016) Review By Greg Klymkiw of Jean Renoir's LA GRANDE ILLUSION, featuring famed French-Jewish actor Dalio in the role of a nouveau riche Jewish P.O.W. Film available for more detailed scrutiny on the magnificent O.O.P. Criterion Collection DVD replete with extras.

Posters for La Grande Illusion and images of fellow German P.O.W. camp escapees Jean Gabin and Marcel Dalio.
Heritage Cinema, Retrospective Programming:
Important Hallmarks of the Extremely Vital
Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF)

2016 Edition of TJFF Unravels Gems
Reflecting Jewish Themes, Talent and Culture
Greg Klymkiw reviews Jean Renoir's masterpiece:

Germans will be Germans.
Luckily, the French will always be the French.
La Grande Illusion (1937)
Dir. Jean Renoir
Scr. Renoir & Charles Spaak
Starring: Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Erich Von Stroheim, Pierre Fresnay,
Dita Parlo, Julien Carette, Gaston Modot, Jean Dasté, Georges Péclet

Review By Greg Klymkiw

La Grande Illusion might be the best film about the Great War ever made. Such a proclamation doesn't come lightly since there are a fine handful of WWI pictures vying for this accolade. King Vidor's The Big Parade, Lewis Milestone's All Quiet On The Western Front, Frank Borzage's A Farewell To Arms, Edmund Goulding's The Dawn Patrol, Powell/Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory and Peter Weir's Gallipoli are all first-rate explorations of the bloodiest, meanest war of the 20th Century. All are replete with filmmaking artistry of the highest order and infused with the kind of emotional depth charges guaranteed to explode one's tear ducts into shards of salty droplets of emotion.

But no, Jean Renoir wins hands down from my perspective.

Well ahead of its time Renoir's masterpiece presents a positive antidote to Europe's rampant antisemitism with the character of Rosenthal (played by immortal French-Jewish actor Dalio), a nouveau riche Jewish P.O.W. who shares his family's care packages of food and drink with his fellow prisoners (no matter what their class, station or rank).

French POWs Amuse Themselves Amongst the Hun.
Furthermore, Renoir crafts a fascinating, often funny and richly moving portrait of a class system on its last legs. It's this very approach which, unlike other war films, is what makes it so brilliant and ahead of its time, but in many ways, makes it one of the most stirring anti-war films of cinema history. ("Class" is often touched upon in WWI pictures, but here, it is everything, and as such contributes to the picture's lasting value.)

The screenplay by Renoir and Charles Spaak, tells the story of a group of allied soldiers incarcerated in the German prisoner of war camps of World War I. This is not the typical reflection of concentration camps since WWI occurred during the waning days of aristocratic rule when even Germans exercised a certain degree of compassion and restraint in the treatment of its prisoners.

The film focuses primarily upon Lieutenant Maréchal (the always dashing French leading man Jean Gabin), a simple car mechanic in real life who is in the previously unthinkable position of an officer and a gentleman. In fact, it is Maréchal's basic, down-home pragmatism which allows him to be a leader within the prison system and most importantly, provides the inspiration to never give up the effort to seek escape so prisoners can rejoin their comrades in the fight against the Hun.

Death be not proud? Or is it?
Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) is, amongst the POWs, pure aristocracy, but he too, like the Jewish nouveau riche Rosenthal, knows that in war, his place is with his fellow prisoners. He is, however, allowed to have his cake and eat it too when Captain von Rauffenstein (the great Erich von Stroheim), the ultra-aristocratic commandant on the German side, welcomes him for fine spirits and lively conversation - a discourse which leads to both men equally lamenting, yet accepting the fact that this is the war in which the "ruling" class is on its way out.

Their friendship takes on some of the more moving and heartbreaking elements and events of the film.

Renoir presents both sides of the coin to the POWs' incarceration. The film shares a magnificent staged entertainment amongst the men, stirring escape planning and a rousing rendition of "La Marseillaise" which offers an equal dose of soul-stirring tears to the similar moment years later in Michael Curtiz's Casablanca.

German Prisons Do Not All Provide Fun and Games.
On the flip side, Renoir does not shy away from the brutality of the German captors (outside of von Rauffenstein's decidedly humanitarian approach to wartime prison administration), nor the horrific irony of outgoing French soldiers unable to give instructions to the incoming English-speaking prisoners of where the escape tunnel has been started due to language barriers and, in spite of the film's ahead-of-its-time portrait of a major Jewish character, Renoir also exposes the racism amongst the soldier-prisoners with respect to a Black prisoner who can ultimately only speak to himself, in hopes that someone might listen and converse with him.

As this is a prison picture, there is an escape, and it is here where Renoir outdoes himself in terms of both the suspense and the horrifying result of a character least likely to sacrifice himself as well as a character least-wanting to impart a death bullet. Get out thy handkerchiefs, folks. The death of class a la Renoir allows only for an aristocrat to welcome death at the hands of an aristocrat.

Running into yummy Dita Parlo on the run not a bad deal.
Renoir even provides deep romance (beyond that of men linked in common causes in war) and we're introduced to the lovely Dita Parlo (from Jean Vigo's L'Atalante) as a saviour and love interest. Renoir does allow for a certain sentimentality here ("sentimentality" NOT being a dirty word), but as is his wont, the master filmmaker yanks this happiness from all concerned (including us, the audience).

Finally, there is one of the great endings in film history - two men, one a mechanic, the other a Jew - both dotted together, dwarfed by the white snow of Switzerland and under threat of German bullets during their last mad dash.

Ultimately, this is a film in which escape can only mean a willing return to war, and for this, amongst so many astonishing elements, La Grande Illusion is one of the great anti-war films in cinema history.

It might even be the best.


La Grande Illusion is being screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF 2016) in cooperation with the Alliance Francaise to complement the premiere of Mark Rappaport’s new documentary on French Jewish actor Marcel Dalio. The screening will feature guest speaker Professor Chris Faulkner, author of "The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir".

The out-of-print Criterion Collection DVD is still available for rent at special video stores (in Toronto that includes, Queen Video, Bay Street Video and Suspect Video). Most major cities still have video stores like these. This edition of the film can still be purchased new or used at by visiting this link HERE. Amazon offers premium pricing, but also very reasonable used pricing options. The Criterion edition includes: Newly restored digital transfer, created from the long-lost camera negative, a New and improved English subtitle translation, A rare theatrical trailer in which Jean Renoir discusses both Grand Illusion and his personal war experiences, an Audio essay by film historian Peter Cowie, an Archival radio presentation of Renoir and Erich von Stroheim accepting Grand Illusion’s Best Foreign Film honours at the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards, Press book excerpts, Renoir’s letter “to the projectionist,” cast bios, an essay on Renoir by von Stroheim, and essays about the film’s title and recently recovered camera negative, plus a very interesting Restoration demonstration.