During the German occupation of France in WWII, the camera negative for Jean Renoir's 1937 masterpiece Grand Illusion was confiscated from a Paris laboratory and sent to Berlin, where it was in turn seized by the Red Army and anonymously stored in a massive archive. Over the years, several reissues were pieced together from existing prints, but it wasn't until the current decade that the negative was discovered in a Moscow shipment of nondescript film cans. Michel Rocher and Brigitte Dutray's new restoration strikes the highest-quality print since its original release—though the differences from available transfers, such as the Criterion laserdisc, are negligible—and Lenny Borger's improved translation helps clarify some vaudevillian puns and song snippets. While this sparkling reissue doesn't offer the fresh revelations of Walter Murch's painstaking work on Touch Of Evil or Vertigo, it's still a fine opportunity to revisit perhaps the most humane anti-war film ever made. Rather than emphasize the brutality and pitiless destruction of combat, Renoir instead celebrates a camaraderie among soldiers that transcends class and national identity, revealing war to be a useless and arbitrary venture. Erich von Stroheim gives an enduring performance as a German commandant in WWI who presides over three French POWs determined to flee for Switzerland, if for no other reason than that "prison camps are made for escaping." The mutual respect and civility shared by captor and captive, underlined in a key relationship between von Stroheim and an aristocratic French officer, may seem strange to contemporary audiences used to having enemies routinely demonized. Grand Illusion remains a hopeful plea for sanity and decency, even at a time when both are in short supply.
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