|Erich von Stroheim as Captain von Stroheim faces off with his friend/nemesis Captain de Boldieu (played by Pierre Fresnay.)|
Grand Illusion (1937)
d. Jean Renoir
Criterion Collection #1
In Los Angeles for the weekend, as I often am these days, plotting my escape from the disaster of my San Diego based social life, I have access to my friends Criterion DVD collection, which includes Criterion Collection #1, Jean Renoir's masterpiece Grand Illusion. I've seen Grand Illusion at least twice, but never had access to the Criterion Collection edition, so I wanted to give it a spin.
Because I've seen Grand Illusion multiple times, I had no compunction about watching it with the audio commentary track turned on. Here, the excellent commentary is provided by film historian Peter Cowie. Perhaps it is because the film itself is so interesting, but I found Cowie's commentary particularly illuminating, especially his comments about famous Director/Actor/Enfant Terrible Erich von Stroheim, who plays the indelible Captain von Rauffenstein. It is impossible to forget Stroheim's performance, and his performance is even more remarkable that it happened almost two decades after he was cast out of Hollywood for turning in seven and a half hour epic films (the original cut of Greed was seven hours plus) in complete opposition to what was becoming the Hollywood recipe for a feature film.
Grand Illusion is a prison escape movie, set during World War I, but released on the eve of World War II. Renoir's vision has a warmth that put him out of favor in the era of the Nouvelle Vague/New Wave, but his mastery of the art form, which Cowie points out in intimate detail, eliminates any kind of serious crticism about the "softness" of Grand Illusion.
Renoir was a master craftsman but his artistic vision sought to unify, not divide. It was this trait which put him out of favor with the literati in the 60s and 70s, but when Criterion Collection picks your movie as their number one title, it means you are all the way back and watching Grand Illusion for the first or tenth time it is easy to see why he is regarded as a master by all.