Jean Renoir

The aristocratic Erich von Stroheim and the not so aristocratic Jean Gabin in The Grand Illusion (1937)

The aristocratic Erich von Stroheim and the not so aristocratic Jean Gabin in The Grand Illusion (1937)

  • Born: 1894
  • Died: 1979
  • Rank: 56
  • Score: 566.90
  • Awards: NBR
  • Nominations: Oscar
  • Feature Films: 27
  • Best: The Grand Illusion – 1937
  • Worst: Elena and Her Men – 1956

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. The Grand Illusion – 1937
  2. The Rules of the Game – 1939
  3. La Bete Humaine – 1938
  4. Boudu Saved From Drowning – 1932
  5. The Crime of Monsieur Lange – 1935

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1937 – 4th – La Marseillaise
  • 1937 – 6th – The Lower Depths
  • 1938 – 1st – The Grand Illusion
  • 1940 – 6th – La Bete Humaine
  • 1943 – 6th – This Land is Mine
  • 1945 – 6th – The Southerner
  • 1950 – 7th – The Rules of the Game
  • 1951 – 9th – The River
  • 1964 – 9th – The Crime of Monsieur Lange
  • 1969 – 9th – Boudu Saved From Drowning

So what do you do if you father is one of the most renowned painters in the world? You become a different kind of artist. Jean Renoir took a path of writing and directing and blazed his own path to artistic immortality. In 1938, his anti-war film The Grand Illusion became the first foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Of course, by then, even if he wasn’t known in the States, he was well known in France and Europe for such films as Crime of Monsieur Lange, The Lower Depths and Boudu Saved From Drowning. The war intervened and he left Europe for Hollywood, where he made several very good films, including his Oscar nominated The Southerner and a film that would win the admiration of a young Martin Scorsese, The River. He then went back to France and made several more solid films (and one very good one, Picnic on the Grass) before he retired in the 60’s.

The Grand Illusion – #1 film of 1938

It has been said that it impossible to make a true anti-war film; that the energy and power from a war on film makes it look desirable no matter what you do. But Renoir bypassed that very idea early on when he made a war film that made very use of the actual battles and instead focused on the human cost of the war at the very time that the world was headed back into another such war.

When some very stupid Americans who shall remain nameless made comments several years ago about “Old Europe,” there was actually a grain of truth to that. There was such a thing as Old Europe and there was New Europe and the dividing line between the two emerged in the first World War. What emerged into that war out of the imperialism of the 19th Century was the idea of nationhood and nationalities. In this war, suddenly, the class system was no longer stronger than the nation system.

Erich von Stroheim was a great actor (and better director, as will be seen in a week or so) and this was one of his greatest performances (the only better one was in one of the few films ever made as good as this one – Sunset Boulevard). Here he plays the aristocratic German who makes friends with the French aristocrat and assumes that the class lines that unite them will make the Frenchman a model prisoner and that he can trust him at his word. But this is where the lines have begun to change and the German has yet to understand that. The French act together and some of his men escape because this is no longer a world of class structure, no longer a world of officers and enlisted men, it is a world of nation states and people will stick together. The pain in Stroheim’s eyes when he understands the betrayal is amazing.

The other performance that anchors this film is that of Jean Gabin. Gabin was one of France’s best (and best known) actors for decades. And he eventually went to Hollywood, but unlike Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier, he returned to France and primarily remained a foreign actor. His every performance was marked by intensity and a sense of decency that echoed through his characters (he, of course, would later play Jean Valjean). His interactions here, first as a prisoner of war, and later as a fugitive, interacting with a German housewife with whom he cannot speak are the kind of depth that made him such a class act.

The Grand Illusion is an amazing picture, and was treated as such in its time. It won Best Foreign Film from both the NYFC and the NBR. It was the first Foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Today it belongs on the short list with Sunset Boulevard, The Wizard of Oz, The Seventh Seal and Rashomon for discussion of the single greatest film ever made. It stands as a testament both to its director and the vision he had in a world that had barely survived one war and was headed straight into another one.