Along with Jean Renoir's RULES OF THE GAME (1939), this has become a staple of all-time great film lists. With his usual deceptive simplicity, Renoir introduces us to a group of French officers who have been taken prisoner during World War I. They include an aristocratic career officer (the dashing Pierre Fresnay) and two lieutenants: Jean Gabin, the eternal Everyman of the French cinema, and Marcel Dalio, a witty Jew unashamed of his nouveau riche background. Like RULES OF THE GAME, GRAND ILLUSION is at once an elegant farewell to Europe’s ancient aristocracy and a profound warning against another world war that Renoir surely sensed was inevitable. Both films have a tremendous sensitivity to class, which in a lesser artist might have lapsed into mere elitism or, at the other extreme, sentimentality. At the core of the film is the friendship that the German commandant (Erich von Stroheim, the very definition of noblesse oblige) extends to Fresnay. In French with English subtitles.
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