The illusion in “Grand Illusion,” Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece set during World War I, is war itself, which demands sides when sides bear little relationship to the common interests of individuals. No wonder Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared the film ”Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1.”
But censorship, ironically, aided in its preservation: Through a series of political handoffs, the camera negative was saved, and this revivified print, enhanced by a crisp new translation, makes an old classic new.
In the gracious and respectful relationship between the German Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) and his French prisoner-counterpart Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), between the high-born Boeldieu and his low-born fellow officer Maréchal (Jean Gabin), between Maréchal and the French-Jewish soldier Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), and between one brave German woman (Dita Parlo) and the two escaped French prisoners she hides, Renoir, the grand humanist filmmaker, spoke for all that’s best about people at a time when people were in danger of becoming their worst.