War films are frequent these days, anything to capitalise on the agony and horrors of such times. It sells, and I’m one of many who enjoy engaging with this sort of film, so I can’t be too harsh to the genre. Some of my favourite films are nestled in here, and I may have just found another marvellous time with Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. Taking place during the First World War, we’re taken to the cells and courtyards populated by captured soldiers fighting for their country. It’s a rightly regarded classic, and an interesting time capsule, capturing the tragedies of the First World War without the effects or impact of the second encroaching on the minds of those involved in the creative process.
When a group of Parisian fighters are captured and transported to a high-security prison camp, we see their fractured minds adapt to their grim situation. Immediately drawing up a nice bit of classism and mixing it with the horrifying impact of war. We focus more on the harrowing moments of fractured emotions and instability, and Renoir captures it well. There are moments of true brutality unleashed on the audience, shrieks and cries to be let outside to see the sunlight. Performances that capture such an array of emotions are even better, Erich von Stroheim’s turn as cavalry officer Rauffenstein is a dangerously strong supporting role, holding his own and giving a nice boost to those around him too.
Renoir boasts some impressive moments that will settle in well with fans of old film. He brings such consistency, managing to blend entertainment with artistic freedom in a way few can. There are a couple of supporting performances or moments that will dry up the pacing from time to time, but such scenes can be forgiven considering the strength of this direction. Nice composition, great set design and a crew behind the camera that work feverishly hard to make sure it all comes off without a cinch. The result is a marvellous exploration into a broken psyche, and how the permanent scars of warfare and imprisonment never quite wear away.
A masterful interpretation of class warfare, all played out to the backdrop of literal warfare. Grand Illusion is indeed, as the title would suggest, grand. Its illusions seem to be of harmony and respect for one another, its reality far darker than one would hope it to be. To put aside deeply held beliefs and differences for the good of the group, sometimes that’s far too difficult even during matters of life or death. Renoir captures that well, and his cast are up to the task of making this a compelling, extraordinary experience. Inarguably strong, Grand Illusion brings a narrative that is now oversaturated with filler and crashes it head-on into quality.