Thursday, March 3, 2011

Grand Illusion

This was the first non-English film to be nominated for Best Picture, and feels a bit ahead of its time coming in the late 1930s. It's about French soldiers and officers imprisoned by the Germans in World War I, as they overcome the differences in their rank and civilian lives to try to band together and escape. The film does a great job of using a terrible war to tell a human story about how we're all really the same, and despite the climate in which it was made, even sympathizes the Germans with a prison commander who's far from the typical tyrannical villain and a woman who lives on a farm.

So it's pretty much a prototypical prison escape film at first, as the prisoners bond and share their experiences and we see how they plan to break out, with various wrinkles and setbacks thrown at them they have to overcome. The rug is yanked out from under them partway through, though they eventually get right back to planning the escape. There's an entertaining rapport among the men as they talk about their pasts and put on shows for the other imprisoned officers, and the three main characters in particular are well formed. The film hardly barely even touches on actually depicting the war going on outside, though the experience is much like what a prisoner would feel, rarely knowing how the effort is going without them. They do enough to establish how they're imprisoned, and it's not like the movie needed any battle scenes.

The introduction of the German captain is really where the movie comes into its own, I think. He knows one of the prisoners from before, and he respects the men despite being charged with ensuring their imprisonment. He is stuck with the assignment because his body has been nearly destroyed by combat, and he regrets that he is no longer able to really help his country without even getting the honor of being killed in duty. The relationship between him and the men is really interesting, and probably the highlight of a very good film. It's funny, it has moments of real poignancy and significance... it has a little bit of everything.

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