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LA GRANDE ILLUSION

France, 1937 (MIFF 1958, Programme 12)

Director: Jean Renoir

This film of Jean Renoir made in 1937 is a pacifist picture pleading like Pabst's Kameradschaft for toleration and co-operation between nations and arguing that divisions of rank and class, like the division of nationality must inevitably be broken down if man is to achieve his greatness.

"It is a film of immense beauty and haunting pathos. It unmasks war as a vast catastrophe involving millions of simple and pleasant human beings, painting them black or white depending upon which side they happen to be fighting.

Set in a German prisoner of war camp during World War I, La Grande Illusion is actually an abstract discussion of war. The prisoners are a mixed bunch, from the fields, the shop, the estaminet, the chateau. They are united in the idea of escape, but divided by class distinction. The aristocratic officer, de Bocldieu (Pierre Fresnay), is far closer in spirit and friendship to von Rauffenstcin, the camp commandant (Erich von Stroheim), than he is to his own comrades. Yet he sacrifices his life in helping his fellow-officers to escape.

These two officers and gentlemen whom fate has made into enemies, because of the burden of military tradition, may not turn their eyes to the paths of escape. War is their business, and de Boeldieu can take no part in his comrades' dreams of "getting back". Death is the logical conclusion for the professional soldier.

Renoir's genius lies in the fact that he never overemphasises his points. The almost casual glance we are given of von Rauffenstein's room, with its tender attention to detail, establishes tire man as no extravagant close-up could do." Superlative acting helps to make its characters memorable; especially von Stroheim as the aristocratic professional soldier, injured and disfigured, reduced to commanding a prison camp.

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