So many ideas.
Jean Renoir directed and wrote this movie. This is probably one of the early examples of the director as auteur. The auteur is not just a studio craftsman; rather, an artist that treats film as the medium.
Renoir is obviously lamenting the last of the "gentlemen's war". His movie is set in WWI and the world has not experienced Hitler or Stalin. Even more important than the context of war, Renoir is focusing on the evolution of Europe. The end of the war is just a milestone in Europe's history. In the Grand Illusion, many new alliances are formed and some of the older ones fade away: the French and Germans don't have to hate each other, people can overcome their anti-semitism, languages don't have to be a barrier, and people don't have to be separated by gentrifications.
The movie focuses on a group of prisoners and their captors. The prisoners are mostly French but have much in common with their German counterparts. The prisoners are obliged to attempt escape, just as duty keeps the Germans from allowing their escape. Two prisoners eventually do escape and they have to find refuge in the farm house of a widowed German woman.
This movie has a fascinating history. The short version is that many countries in Europe made local edits to their version as they weren't comfortable with Renoir's new Europe. The movie was in the French film repository. During WWII, Germany had banned the film, but one of the ministers of culture felt more obligation to preserve films rather than destroy them. He shipped the movie from France to the German archives. A few weeks later, the US bombed the film archives in occupied France. The original negative was thought to be destroyed. After the war, the German archives ended up on the Russian side of divided Germany and the movie was shipped to the Russian archives. For the revival, Renoir put together a new master from all of the edited films left in Europe. He was never happy with this release as key material was lost on the editing room floor. Many years later, a new French film archive was being constructed. A young student asked for many movies to be repatrioted from the Russian archives. The Cold War was over and Russia obliged. A few years later, it was realized that the much travelled film was the original negative.
Jean Gabin turns in a great performance. He is a great screen presence.
So what is the Grand (Great) Illusion? Is it the ideals of man? The policy of war? Renoir isn't definitive. The viewer has to decide.
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