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Grand Illusion: The Criterion Collection

While Jean Renoir's 1937 La Grande Illusion has never been considered a "lost" film, it's had more than its share of bumps in the road. A humanist story about German and French soldiers during World War I, Renoir's masterpiece was declared to be the cinematic "Public Enemy #1" by Goebbels when the Nazis overran France. With virtually all copies of the film rounded up and returned to Berlin, the film was nearly lost (the Soviets took control of the Nazi film archives in 1945), but after the war Renoir undertook a painstaking process to recut the film from a variety of materials, good and not-so-good alike, which was completed in 1958. Further restorative work was done for Criterion's 1987 Laserdisc release, and the folks at Criterion have been so fond of Grand Illusion over the years that they designated it to be their first DVD back in 1997. However, just before they began a new transfer, the original camera negative of Grand Illusion was discovered in Europe, meaning that a brand-new print of the film would be constructed. In light of this, Criterion immediately suspended their Grand Illusion DVD, and their first disc was in fact Seven Samurai, designated as Criterion disc 2. Finally, by November of 1999, Criterion's first DVD was released (with an unmistakable "1" on the spine), and it's a stunner. Renoir's moving, often-ironic prison-camp film is bolstered by performances from Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, and Erich von Stroheim, all of whom illustrate the dualities of war when a desperate bid for freedom (or a brutal fight to the death) is often a matter between gentlemen. The new print is outstanding, perhaps the best ever seen from any European film dating back to the '30s, with strong low-contrast details and virtually no damage whatsoever. The audio is in the original mono (DD 1.0), and supplements include a commentary track by film historian Peter Cowie (taken from Criterion's 1987 laser release), a restoration demonstration, an introduction to the 1958 restoration by Renoir (who shares some photos and, coincidentally, discusses some miraculously found footage discovered after the war), a 1938 radio segment with Renoir and von Stroheim, an electronic press-book detailing the film's restorations, and cast and crew notes.
—Robert Wederquist

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