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Movies

Critic’s Notebook

Getting a clear look at ‘Grand Illusion’ at 75

Jean Gabin (left) and Pierre Fresnay (center) in director Jean Renoir’s 1937 prison-camp film, “Grand Illusion."

Rialto Pictures

Jean Gabin (left) and Pierre Fresnay (center) in director Jean Renoir’s 1937 prison-camp film, “Grand Illusion."

A wondrous irony informs the 75th anniversary engagement of Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” at the Harvard Film Archive, which starts Friday and runs through Aug. 19.

The irony has to do with seeing vs. watching. Rialto Pictures has had a new 35mm print struck, and “Grand Illusion” looks crisper and cleaner than anything you’re likely to see at a multiplex. Renoir’s experiments with deep focus, in particular, have a ravishing immediacy. This is how a movie was meant to be seen. Yet for all the clarity of the actual screen image it’s all but impossible not to watch “Grand Illusion” through a thick scrim of film history.

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During the ’30s, Renoir had one of the great directorial decades — maybe the greatest? A film as marvelous as “The Crime of Monsieur Lange” (1936), say, or as potent as “La Bête Humaine” (1938) can get lost on a list that includes “La Chienne” (1931), “Boudu Saved From Drowning” (1932), “Partie de campagne” (1936), and “Grand Illusion,” culminating with “The Rules of the Game” (1939).

Inevitably, “Grand Illusion” lies in the shadow of “Rules.” None of the three leads — Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay, as French POWs, and Erich von Stroheim, as a German camp commandant — appear in “Rules.” But three other actors figure prominently in both films: Marcel Dalio, Julien Carette, and Gaston Modot, all playing French POWs. Their vivid presence can almost make “Grand Illusion” feel like a casting call for “Rules.”

Largely set in a series of German POW camps during World War I, “Grand Illusion” created a template for every subsequent prison-camp movie. From “The Wooden Horse” to “Stalag 17” to “The Great Escape,” the influence of Renoir’s film is unmistakable, right down to the lifting of specific scenes and situations.

It’s not just prison-camp movies that have done the lifting. The singing of the “Marseillaise” in “Casablanca”? It’s a straight steal from “Grand Illusion.” In “Casablanca” it’s brilliant stagecraft. In “Grand Illusion,” it’s so much more. The singing is inspired by the prisoners learning that the French have retaken Fort Douamont during the battle of Verdun. It’s a thrilling moment, with a moral gravity rarely matched in film. Politically, “Grand Illusion” is most often understood as a product of Renoir’s Popular Front leftism, and that’s certainly there. It’s no less a product of Renoir’s patriotism and own war experience. Awarded a Croix de Guerre, he walked with a limp for the rest of his life, because of a wound.

Renoir served in the cavalry, then air force. A similar sense of past and future informs “Grand Illusion,” exemplified by the characters’ class backgrounds. All the French POWs are officers, but only one is an aristocrat. Gabin is a workingman, for example, Dalio is Jewish. Fresnay is a nobleman — a decent enough fellow, the other officers agree, but his flintiness makes them uncomfortable. He has less in common with them than with Stroheim, a fellow aristocrat. The two men share a kinship that transcends national differences. In a nicely supra-nationalist touch, they often speak to each other in English.

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That kinship doesn’t take precedence over a sense of honor. “French or German, duty is duty,” Fresnay says to Stroheim. The most famous line in “Rules” — “There is one terrible thing in this life, that everyone has his reasons” — could be restated in “Grand Illusion” as “everyone has his duty.” When duty leads to one man’s death at the hands of the other, each understands and salutes his fellow officer. Fresnay is excellent. But it’s Stroheim — with the look of his hurt, hooded eyes — who’s unforgettable.

Aristocrats aren’t the only ones who transcend borders. Here’s where one most plainly sees Renoir’s commitment to the Popular Front. Even at his haughtiest, Fresnay stays committed to the common cause. When two of the men escape, they’re aided by a German woman who’s suffered far worse from the war than they have. Her husband and three brothers have all been killed. “The table’s too big now,” she says, only her daughter there.

Later, as the men approach Switzerland, they wonder how much farther they have to go. “You can’t see borders,” one says. “They’re made.” We last glimpse them as two dark specks against an expanse of snow, an image as moving, and heartening, as any ever seen onscreen.

“Grand Illusion” can creak at times. The passage of 75 years has not been entirely kind to the film. Carette overacts shamelessly. British POWs singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” seem to have wandered in from another movie. A revue put on by the prisoners owes a lot more to Renoir’s love of music hall than to plausible circumstance.

Perhaps it was with such moments in mind that the friend sitting next to me said afterward, “That’s a very fine film, but ‘Rules of the Game’ is greater.” Well, sure — as the Jupiter is a greater symphony than the Prague, or Chartres a greater cathedral than Notre Dame. But past a certain point, greatness is a matter of artistic degree, not kind. Or, rather, it’s not a matter of degree or kind but of simple gratitude that a given work exists. In evoking a doomed aristocracy and ascendant brotherhood of man, Renoir did something more than just pay tribute to the human spirit. He enlarged it.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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