Grand Ilusion: Renoir’s Masterpiece Restored

“Cinema Enemy No. 1.”–Joseph Goebbels

“All the democracies of the world must see this film.”– Franklin D. Roosevelt

“If I had only one film in the world to save, it would be “Grand Illusion”–Orson Welles

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Jean Renoir’s masterpiece “Grand Illusion” (1937), starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, and Erich von Stroheim, is presented in a spectacular new 4K restoration in honor of its 75th anniversary.

The film opens at Film Forum in New York on May 11, 2012 and at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in Los Angeles on May 18, followed by other cities.

Set in a POW camp, Jean Renoir’s Oscar-nominated masterpiece, centers on a triangle of men. French working class man Jean Gabin and aristocratic staff observer Pierre Fresnay are shot down by the equally aristocratic German Erich von Stroheim.

But meanwhile there are escapes—one by tunnel–to be planned; fellowship with Jewish moneybags Marcel Dalio, music hall cut-up Carette, and engineer Gaston Modot; a necessarily all-male musical revue, interrupted by a dramatic announcement; and a reunion with Stroheim at an escape-proof castle keep.

Partly inspired by stories of the air ace who had saved Renoir’s life in WWI, “Grand Illusion” is essentially a celebration of the brotherhood of man, across class, across frontiers, as well a kind of elegy for an international aristocracy (Fresnay and Stroheim, going monocle to monocle, speak much of the time in English, a language no one else understands).

Internationally acclaimed, “Grand Illusion” received Best Foreign Film awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review, Best Overall Artistic Contribution from the Venice Film Festival (under Mussolini), and an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, the first ever for a foreign language film.

Acknowledged as one of the world’s great classics, “Grand Illusion” was thought to be lost. Declared “cinema enemy number one” by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, its camera negative was confiscated by the Germans soon after they occupied France in 1940, then sent to Berlin’s Reichsfilmarchiv, which in turn was seized by the Red Army in 1945. Although the negative was completely intact and safely stored, even Renoir didn’t know of its existence and had to assemble a new dupe negative for the 1958 reissue of the film.

In the mid-1960s, the Cinémathèque of Toulouse, France, reached a détente with its Soviet counterpart. The “Grand Illusion” negative was part of a film exchange, but it sat on a shelf in Toulouse for decades before anyone noticed.

In the late 1990s, the film was transferred to the French State Film Archive for inventory and, in 1999, the first restoration was undertaken by Canal+ Image (now Studiocanal).

In 2011, Studiocanal and the Cinémathèque de Toulouse embarked on a new restoration using the latest digital technology. The nitrate camera negative (which was still in remarkable condition) was digitized in 4K by the Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna.

The sound was given special treatment; the nitrate variable density soundtrack was scanned, allowing a restoration with sharper sound quality. A 35mm record of the restored element will guarantee the film’s preservation for at least a century.

Film Forum is showing the restoration in 35mm, with newly-revised subtitles capturing the wit of the Renoir-Charles Spaak screenplay as never before. One of world cinema’s legendary work, the restored “Grand Illusion” looks and sounds better than ever.

A festival of the silent and sound films of director-actor Erich Von Stroheim (Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” among others) runs Mondays at Film Forum from May 27 through July 30, 2012.

Credits

Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir & Charles Spaak
Producers: Albert Pinkevitch & Frank Rollmer
Assistant Director: Jacques Becker
Technical Advisor: Carl Koch
Photography: Christian Matras
Cameraman: Claude Renoir
Editor: Marguerite Houllé
Music: Joseph Kosma
Art Director: Eugène Lourié
Costume Designer: René Decrais
French premiere: June 8, 1937 U.S. premiere: September 12, 1938
Filmed at the Caserne de Colmar and the Château du Haut Koenigsbourg, Alsace
and the Studios Éclair and Studios de Boulogne-Billancourt, France
France Black & White Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Running time: 114 min.

Cast

Lieutenant Maréchal: Jean Gabin
Captain de Boeldieu: Pierre Fresnay
Captain Von Rauffenstein: Erich von Stroheim
Rosenthal: Marcel Dalio
Cartier, the Actor: Julien Carette
The Engineer: Gaston Modot
The Schoolmaster: Jean Dasté
Elsa: Dita Parlo
Lotte, her Daughter: Miss Peters
Demolder, the Greek Teacher: Sylvain Itkine
Charpentier: Georges Peclet
Arthur Krantz: Karl Heil
British Officer with the Watch: Jacques Becker
German M.P.: Carl Koch