In 1937, with Europe balanced dangerously on the edge of calamity, Jean Renoir looked back to World War I as the setting for one of his greatest works, the story of a group of French POWs determined to escape from a German prison camp. The group’s tireless effort inspires a solidarity that overrules even the deepest seated class differences, and most remarkably, the fact that one of the French soldiers is Jewish. The poignant yet troubled bond of class that joins an imprisoned aristocrat – played with supercilious elegance by a dashing Pierre Fresnay – and his titled German jailer, serves both as Renoir’s elegy for European trans-nationalism and as his tribute to Erich von Stroheim, who reaches deep into his Teutonic imagination to invent perhaps his greatest role as an actor. Balancing poetic realism with a sober farewell to the ancien régime, Renoir brings a luminous pathos to the film’s politics and its fearful acknowledgement of the dark storms brewing once again in Europe.
Lost for decades, the original negative for Grand Illusion miraculously surfaced in the Russian archive Gosfilmofond, where it had landed thanks in part to the Nazis who had a special hatred for the film. Confiscating the negative when they occupied Paris, they transferred it to Berlin’s Reichsfilmarchiv, which in turn was seized by Soviet troops in 1945. Derived from this peripatetic negative, the restoration features digitally remastered sound and newly translated subtitles that capture the nuance and Gallic verve of the screenplay. The Harvard Film Archive is proud to be the exclusive Boston venue for the premiere of this re-release from Rialto Pictures, the film’s US distributor.