by Dan Gibson
Basically everything the Loft shows as part of their monthly Essential Cinema series is worth seeing (and c'mon people, cough up the $5 suggested donation), but this month's selection of Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion is super-essential, if that's a thing.
The film, about French prisoners of war in World War I, was one of Orson Welles' favorite films and makes those "best movies of all time" lists quite frequently. It's a haunting film about war, intelligent and emotional, plus Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels declared the film "Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1," which almost certainly makes it worth watching, right?
'Grand Illusion'' presents a world in transition, and like-minded individuals forced to different sides of the battle lines. ''For you and me,'' Erich von Stroheim's assertively patrician German captain tells the French officer played with supreme gallantry by Pierre Fresnay, ''dying in war is a good way out.'' The captain is appalled by the kind of upheaval that has left him on a familiar footing with men like Lieutenant Marechal, played by the magnetic Jean Gabin at the height of his glory as France's favorite working-class hero. Gabin's deeply affecting performance embodies the courage and resiliance in which the film so fervently believes.
''Grand Illusion'' looks all the more radical now as a film with no need to spell out the obvious or follow the trajectory of an ordinary plot. It seems especially disarming now in its genius for keeping its story indirect yet its meaning perfectly clear. Its greatest dramatic heights seem to occur almost effortlessly, as a tale of escape derived from the experience of one of Renoir's wartime comrades evolves into a series of unforgettable crises and stirring sacrifices. ''Grand Illusion'' ultimately defines war by indelibly showing how much it can destroy.
A brand-new digitally restored version of Grand Illusion shows tonight at 7 p.m. More info at loftcinema.com.