Vanishing times

Critic's choice: Film

November 28, 1999|By Ann Hornaday

It's been 62 years since "Grand Illusion" ("La Grande Illusion"), Jean Renoir's World War I masterpiece starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim, was first released in theaters. And it's lost none of its original insight, grandeur and delicacy of feeling.

Thought by many to be an anti-war polemic, "Grand Illusion" actually uses the backdrop of the war to examine the subtle shift in power among the world's classes and castes. Gabin and Fresnay play two French officers who are shot down and imprisoned in a German camp; von Stroheim plays the German officer who treats the men -- especially Fresnay's character, an aristocratic career officer -- with the decorum that befits both their stations.

The momentum of "Grand Illusion" is created by the escape adventure at its core, but the central relationship is that between Fresnay and von Stroheim, one of whom realizes his time has passed while the other desperately tries to hold on to a disappearing era.

Von Stroheim delivers an especially tender performance as a man caught between two worlds.

A restored print of "Grand Illusion" is enjoying a limited run at the Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St.

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