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La Grande Illusion is a non-traditional war film. It focuses on a group of prisoners in a German camp who are trying to escape. What makes it different is that this film is less interested in examining the politics of the war, the bloodiness of battle, the details of the escape, or the harsh conditions in the prison. Instead, I saw it as an examination of how war changes the social structures of society. It’s definitely a unique way of looking at relationships during wartime, and I liked how the movie showed that military rank can sometimes divide people just like any class system. Similarly, it can form a bond between two people on opposite sides based solely on the status provided by their rank. And finally, under the right circumstances, it shows there is no difference between a Captain and a Private. At times the story got diverted into strange side plots, but every time they came back to this thematic element, I was interested and wanted to explore it more. Then there was another interesting aspect of the story when we arrive at the farmhouse. I wasn’t totally sure how this was tied into all that came before, but it was possibly my favorite subplot. I would have enjoyed watching an entire movie just based on this story. I think my biggest struggle with La Grande Illusion, aside from the fact that it was a bit slow-moving, was the fact that it lacked focus. While it held together thematically, the story structure didn’t have a normal flow. I was invested in the characters, and wanted to see them free, but I didn’t connect with the method of storytelling. I tend to be a bit picky, always seeking narrative scripts with a traditional style, and there was just enough deviation from the norm in La Grande Illusion to make it fall a little flat for me. However, I still respect it a lot for attempting something unique in a genre that can often get formulaic and boring. I wonder if perhaps a second viewing would make me like it more.
Interesting WW1 drama.
Western Front, World War 1. Captain Boeldieu and Lt. Marechal are shot down and captured by the Germans. For them the war is over, it seems, but they have other plans.
Interesting WW1 drama, written and directed by the famed French director Jean Renoir. Could be described as an anti-war drama, as it does not glamorize life in wartime at all. Quite original in that respect as most movies of the time (All Quiet On the Western Front would be another exception) romanticized war. Also quite novel for its time in that it shows life in a POW camp - it was only in the 50s and 60s that POW movies became popular (Stalag 17 and The Great Escape being the best examples).
Not brilliant though, and hardly the classic I was expecting. The story isn't overly compelling nor profound and ends in fairly predictable fashion. Renoir's camerawork seems a bit amateurish at times, with jarring, clumsy panning shots. Some of the acting is a bit hammy, with Erich von Stroheim, as von Rauffenstein, to the fore.
A graceful anti-war message, Renoir enables us to experience the idiosyncratic ways of individuals in an absurd context -fucking war.
Grand Illusion is one of those POW camp stories like The Great Escape or King Rat (the movie, not the book), that portrays life in POW camps as a sort of fun holiday, marked by camaraderie and comic antics. Why would anyone want to leave such a place? You don't really understand the characters' motivation to escape (something about a duty to get back to the war front, maybe?), so the drawn-out sequences of the digging are boring, not suspenseful. I get showing the horrible reality wouldn't play well with audiences, so there's no way it would get past the studio execs, but it diminishes the POW experience. You never see a POW in these movies looking underfed or beaten to the brink of death (all these movies also only depict officers, not the enlisted men, who would have been worse off). Their drag shows come off as crass in light of the historical reality. Having said that, this movie's strengths lie in Eric von Stroheim's amazing and iconic performance as the genteel German officer, and the touching human drama contained in the film's final act. Quality movie overall, you just have to imagine actual conditions being much worse to get invested in the film.
To be honest I have mixed feelings and thoughts about this movie. It didn't impress me at all as it should have; probably it requires another viewing. As a POW drama it isn't that marvelous. But still it is very complex and contains many humanistic messages, which the world required at the time, alongside showcasing of the different approach to everything within the hierarchical structure of human society.
my favorite film ever
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had declared Jean Renoir's 1937 film "Grand Illusion" to be "Cinematic Public Enemy #1" and ordered all prints to be confiscated and destroyed. Even Renoir's own country banned the film in 1940 for as long as the war should last. Once France fell to Nazi Germany, the Nazis seized the prints and all negatives of the film. The original nitrate film negative was thought to have been destroyed in an Allied air raid and lost but prints of the film were rediscovered in 1958 and rereleased in the early 1960's. Then it was revealed that the original negative was shipped back to Berlin and was stored at the Reichsfilmarchiv. After the war the Reichsfilmarchiv happened to be in the Russian zone where the negative was then sent to Moscow. It would be returned to France in the 1960's, but would remain undiscovered until the 1990's, because many thought it was gone. It was rediscovered while the Cinematheque was transferring their nitrate negatives to the French Film Archives. It was rereleased to theaters in 1999.
Renoir was the son of French impressionist painter Pierre Auguste-Renior but was mainly raised by Gabrielle Renard, his nanny and mother's cousin. Renard introduced him to Guignol puppet shows in Montmartre, France, which would influence his film career. Writing in his 1974 memoirs, Renoir said, "She taught me to see the face behind the mask and the fraud behind the flourishes. She taught me to detest the cliché." Renard also introduced him to the new invention of motion pictures taking him to see his first film as a young boy. Renoir would often be featured in many of his father's paintings and due to his father's success, he was schooled at fashionable boarding houses.
When World War I broke out in August 1914, Renoir joined the French cavalry. He later served as a reconnaissance pilot after receiving a bullet in the leg. He would walk with a limp the rest of his life, but while recovering from his leg injury he was able to discover the world of cinema through the works of Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith while he recuperated. At the suggestion of his father, Renoir started working with ceramics after the war, but soon felt compelled to take a hand at film, being influenced by the films of Erich von Stroheim. In 1924, he would make his first of nine silent films.
He gained international success during the 1930's but it wasn't until 1937's "Grand Illusion," that he solidified his stature as a great filmmaker. "Grand Illusion" was not only, arguably, his best film, but was the first foreign film ever to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture of the Year. The idea for the film was influenced by an old friend of Renoir named Pinsard, who was now the commander of an air base near where Renoir was filming the 1935 film "Toni." Pinsard recalled the numerous times he escaped German POW camps during World War I and Renoir believed this would make an interesting film. Renoir had Pinsard write everything down and spoke to more POW's and then added his own wartime experiences. He and Charles Spaak wrote the screenplay together.
There are three main French characters that come from different aspects of life, one an aristocrat named Captain de Boeldieu, played by veteran French stage actor Pierre Fresnay; working class Lieutenant Marechal, played by the most popular French screen actor at the time Jean Gabin; and a Jew named Lieutenant Rosenthal played by one of Renoir's favorite actors Marcel Dalio.
After de Boeldieu and Marechal are shot down by a German aviator and aristocrat named Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim, most well known for his role as Norma Desmond's butler in Billy Wilder's 1950 film "Sunset Boulevard") while on a reconnaissance mission. They are captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp. Upon arriving they meet their fellow prisoners and Marechal learns of a plan to escape through a tunnel the prisoners have been digging for two months. The escape element of the film has been copied and imitated in such films as "The Great Escape," "Stalag 17" and "The Great Raid." This may be the main goal of these characters, this is hardly what the film is about.
This is a "war film" that is so far removed from the trenches, such as when the prisoners attempt to put on a musical revue full with costumes sent from Rosenthal's family in Paris. Leading up to the performance the Germans announce that their army had taken Fort Douamont in what will go down as the bloodiest battle in the war, the Battle of Verdun. The prisoners think they should cancel the performance, but Marechal says that this was all the more reason to put the show on and that they should also invite the German officers. In what is possibly the film's second best scene, it is during the performance that word comes that the French has retaken the fort, prompting Marechal to interrupt the show. An Englishman in drag then leads the prisoners in a singing of the French national anthem "La Marseillaise" as Renoir slowly moves the camera around to show the French and English soldiers singing and the German soldiers reacting to this news. Marechal is then put in solitary confinement and it's ironic that during this time the fort is recaptured by the Germans, as if their celebration was futile and premature. As soon as Marechal is released from solitary confinement the prisoners are told they are being moved to another camp, so the escape is off.
At the new camp, Stroheim's character Rauffenstein is reintroduced. He is so stiff and proper like what a Prussian aristocrat in the German army should act. In contrast to Gabin's Marechal he looks regal. His perfect white gloves, monocle and corset all add to his performance. Rauffenstein is happy to see de Boeldieu. He shows his new prisoners around the prison and he and de Boeldieu often lapse into speaking English to one another. Rauffenstein even apologizes to de Boeldieu that he couldn't give him his own room, to which de Boeldieu responds that he never would've accepted. Marechal and Rosenthal continue plotting their escape in their new camp.
Some scenes show the prisoners talking about the outside world and suggesting that they conveniently forgotten problems of the outside. That life in the POW camp is a lot better than the trenches. There are so many scenes where soldiers of all nationalities feel a kindred spirit with one another, a brotherhood, so to say. They feel sympathetic towards one another. They all know what each other is going through, even the German officers are sympathetic to their prisoners.
There's a scene where the Russians receive a crate they believe is full of vodka and caviar and wish to share it with the French prisoners as gratitude for their kindness. When opening the crate they find that it is full of books on geometry, algebra and cook books. The Russians are so mad that they set fire to the books prompting one Frenchman to get extremely upset and scream that they can't burn books and that it is just wrong. Obviously an attack on what is happening in Nazi Germany at the time, it's very poignant and just one of many powerful scenes.
The many officers and soldiers of World War I may be separated by language, culture and nationality, but there is no denying they share the same experiences. This is not a war film, but an anti-war film that celebrates humanity, a humanity that transcends national and racial borders. This is a film that tells the audience that the war to end all wars didn't solve anything, war never solves anything. With World War II on the horizon and the threat of Hitler and the Nazis, Renoir the pacifist dreads what will happen next. As Hitler screams about annexing Czechoslovakia on the radio, Renoir is tenderly speaking out against such aggression using the art of cinema to ask of his audience, "Have we learned nothing?"
Charlie Chaplin was once asked who he thought was the greatest director in the world. Jean Renoir was his answer, and Grand Illusion is arguably Renoir's most respected and influential picture. An anti-war film perhaps unlike any other, the film relies 100% on character to relay its message. There's absolutely no fighting going on, yet by the film's end, we hear Renoir loud and clear: War ruins lives and dehumanizes us. With very strong acting, assured direction, and a tone that's just spot-on, the film is nearly perfect. It earns its place in history, and the praise piled upon Renoir is deserved.
Grand Illusion takes place during WWI, and follows a pair of French officers-Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin)-after they are shot down by a German officer, Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), and sent to a POW camp. Seeing as they are officers, the two men and their fellow prisoners-including fellow French officer Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio)-are treated relatively well, though differences in class still remain. It's de Boeldieu, a fellow aristocrat, that's permitted to eat, drink, and socialize with von Rauffenstein, not Marechal. But de Boeldieu and Marechal do have a common goal: to escape and rejoin their countrymen on the front lines. And they're willing to do whatever it takes to succeed.
It's hard to single any one thing out as Grand Illusion's greatest strength because I think the whole is greater than the sum of the film's parts. What's so marvelous about it, though, is that Renoir manages to craft something that flows so well you don't even realize the impact it's had on you. While I was watching Grand Illusion, I recognized that it was a great film, but it wasn't until the credits rolled that the magnitude of it hit me. Simply put, it's a masterpiece.
Just as it's difficult to single out one aspect of the production as the best, it's hard to do so with the performances. Perhaps the film's most important performance comes from Erich von Stroheim. His von Rauffenstein is a military man through and through, and he admires anyone with the same beliefs, whether they are German or not. It's a surprising way of thinking, but it's vital to the film's success. If von Rauffenstein had simply been a venom-spewing villain, Grand Illusion would have amounted to nothing more than a prison break movie. With this character-especially when it comes to his relationship with de Boeldieu-the film lives and breathes. It's full of meaning and much more powerful. None of this, of course, should take away anything from the film's other actors, namely Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay. The former is the perfect everyman, and the latter is a picture of upper-class privilege in a situation where class means nothing. His transformation is just remarkable.
Much of the mystique around the film refers back to its mysterious title. What exactly is the Illusion? Is it the class structure, which clearly can't function during a time of crisis? Or is it the idea that men can be adversaries and gentlemen? Maybe something else entirely, but whatever the case, Grand Illusion is a great one. It was the first foreign-language film ever nominated for Best Picture, it was the first film ever released in the Criterion Collection, and it's earned a spot on countless all-time best lists. After finally seeing it, it's not hard to see why. The film is a gem and deserves to be treasured.
It's never grittily realistic, as most war films are nowadays (hell, it was made in 1938, so...). But it is quietly funny, and understatedly moving, and most of all, very very humane. Masterful direction and performances.
Grand Illusion is an unquestioned masterpiece. It belongs on any short list of the greatest movies of all time.
In 1937, film acting was still almost always stiff and mannered. When looking at films of this era, one often grades them on a curve. No one expects Method acting, no one expects natural dialogue that sounds like how humans actually speak.
By the thirties, we were in our first real generation of film actors; no longer were movies burdened with hack stage actors who never learned how to modify their performances for this much more intimate medium, as in the early silent era. For nearly 30 years, Mary Pickford had been showing actors how relate emotions with simple, honest reactions. But in 1937, it was still difficult to find movies that weren't marred with one-dimensional characters and hokey acting styles.
Grand Illusion's performances breathe with unparalleled natural humanity. Every actor in the movie rings true, most of all Jean Gabin, who would be a star in any generation. Pierre Fresnay evokes an early day Trevor Howard with the subtle nobility of his Captain Boeldieu. No one ever sounds like they are acting. Everyone is just TALKING, every word they say sounds true. The acting alone in this movie is 30 years ahead of its time.
However, I'm not going to let this review get too rosy. This is a war movie without battle scenes. It mostly takes place in officers' POW camps. The German commandants, especially Erich Von Stroheim's Von Rauffenstein, go out of their way to make internment comfortable for their prisoners. Prisoners are lightly punished when they are caught attempting escape. They allow the prisoners to receive packages from home, sometimes permitting the prisoners to eat better than the German guards. Things don't even really get hard for the characters until they escape and start their long hard trek to the Swiss border.
Honestly, these camps don't seem like a terrible way to ride out a war. Why escape the camp, rejoin your regiment and get thrown back to the front lines? Could internment like this have possibly existed in the reality of a famously brutal war like World War I, a war where the treatment of POWs required the initiation of the Geneva Conventions after its conclusion?
Of course not. Grand Illusion is a rosy, unrealistic depiction of war - the truly grandest of illusions. One might even call it a Hollywood treatment of war, except that even the most whitewashed American war drama wouldn't attempt a portrayal of war with such minimal hardships.
This is not really a war movie. It's about the bringing together of men of different nations, different social strata, different points of view, and how they bond under the stress of looming death. It's about the differences and the similarities between us all. It's not a realistic depiction of war. It is still a masterpiece.