Greetings again from the darkness. Often cited as one of the all-time great films, I was fortunate enough to catch this one again in a limited theatrical release … a staggeringly beautiful and crisp print. The picture is so clear it looks new, and the updated subtitles make sense and are easy to read. As amazing as it looks, the real value is in the film itself.
Directed by the great Jean Renoir, the story takes place during WWI and shows a much different viewpoint than what we would normally expect from a war movie. But then, this is not really a war movie … or a POW movie … or a Political statement. The real core of this story is the respect and gentlemanly nature exhibited by the men from opposing sides of the war. It is a reminder that war itself is the grand illusion. We also see the results of class differences. When German pilot von Rauffenstein shoots down a couple of French planes, he tells the recovery team to “invite them to lunch” if they are officers. And then we see the similarities of the aristocratic officers as von Rauffenstein and Captain de Boeldieu discover their common bonds.
The influence of this film is quite obvious in two scenes. The digging of the escape tunnel and subsequent emptying of pockets on the prison grounds were “borrowed” in The Great Escape. Also, the singing of “La Marseilles” to annoy the Germans was used quite effectively in Casablanca. We also see a quite daring bedside death scene with the pure admiration between opposing officers who decide dying in war is “a good way out” for their types. Powerful stuff. There is also much commentary on differences: aristocrats, working class, Jewish, Germans, and career soldiers. We even see cross-dressing (with a purpose) in a couple of scenes, one of which provides an unforgettable visual as the soldiers sing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”.
As great as the movie is, the backstory is almost as fascinating. Released as WWII was brewing, it was one of the first things Goebbels seized when the Germans took France. The original negative was shipped to Berlin and presumed destroyed. However, it ended up in Russian archives and was re-discovered in the 1990’s. This was after Renoir (pictured left) had personally restored the film in the 1960’s from what was thought to be the best available copy. Unfortunately, he did not live to see this most recent restoration that brought the film back to it’s original glory. Renoir’s camera work is something to behold – subtle movements for extended shots. By the way, Jean Renoir is the son of the famous French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. I believe they call that good genes.
Silent film director Erich von Stroheim’s iconic turn as von Rauffenstein is truly movie magic. You will recognize von Stroheim as the man servant in Sunset Boulevard. Boeldieu is played by Pierre Fresnay, Marechal is played by Jean Gabin, and Rosenthal by Marcel Dalio. Marechal and Rosenthal have a remarkable segment at Elsa’s farm house. Elsa is played by the stunning Dita Parlo. This sequence provides a nice contrast to the POW portions of the film.
This work of art is now 75 years old. It is highly recommended that you see it at least once. Also, check out Renoir’s other masterpiece The Rules of the Game.
rather than the trailer, here is video of Jean Renoir himself introducing the first re-release: