Restored Renoir classic, now 75, opens this month in U.S.

LONDON — Pop quiz: Before “The Artist,” what was the last film by a French director to be nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards? The answer: Jean Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion,” way back in 1938.

So it’s an apt coincidence in this year of “The Artist” that a sparkling new edition of Renoir’s antiwar masterpiece is being released theatrically in the U.S., France and the U.K., to mark its 75th anniversary.

“Grand Illusion” is already a fixture on the all-time top-10 lists of many filmmakers and critics. But Studiocanal’s digital 4K restoration, created from the original long-lost nitrate negative, is sure to bring fresh acclaim. The sharpness of the image and sound reveals more clearly than ever the precise naturalism with which Renoir orchestrated his humanist hymn to the brotherhood of man.

The film, which stars Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim, is the story of captured French soldiers plotting their escape from a succession of German prison camps during WWI. Released amid the winds of a new war about to engulf Europe, the pic stressed the common humanity of its French and German characters, transcending borders. No wonder Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels denounced it as “cinematic public enemy No. 1″ after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 1937. The French collaborationist Vichy government banned the pic when it came to power in 1940.”Grand Illusion” was re-released after WWII, in 1946, but was heavily censored to remove its sympathetic portrayal of German characters. Renoir reconstructed his original version in 1958, by cobbling together various surviving prints.

The original nitrate negative was believed lost in the Allied bombing of Paris, though Renoir never stopped searching for it until his death in 1979.

In the 1960s, the Toulouse Cinematheque struck up a relationship with Moscow’s Gosfilmofond, to give Soviet cinema a platform in France. In the late ’70s, the Moscow archive gifted Toulouse a stash of old French prints that the Red Army had liberated from Berlin’s Reichsfilmarchiv in 1945, including many films the Nazis had purloined from Paris. It took several more years for the Toulouse team to realize that a couple of these dusty old cans contained the lost negative of “Grand Illusion.”

The negative proved to be in remarkably good condition, and provided the basis for a photochemical restoration in 1997. But restoration techniques have advanced mightily since then, so Studiocanal and the Toulouse Cinematheque commissioned a fresh digital 4K restoration for the 75th anniversary, at cost far higher than the typical $30,000 budget of a standard 2K version.

The work was carried out at the Imagine Ritrovata lab in Bologna, Italy. According to Toulouse topper Natacha Laurent, the most striking differences are in the pic’s soundtrack and contrast.

“The work on the sound is wonderful,” Laurent says. “In the first restoration, it was very difficult to hear some of the dialogue properly. And the image is now very precise and clear. The contrast was not so good in the first restoration, it was really a gray copy, not black and white.”

For Studiocanal, the restoration of is part of an ongoing and extensive program to preserve and refresh the studio’s vast library of French and British films for the digital age.

“?’La Grande Illusion’ is one of the real classics of French cinema, and Studiocanal, being French, takes the whole patrimony thing extremely seriously,” says John Rodden, Studiocanal’s U.K. home entertainment topper. “The commercial opportunity for restorations varies between films, but to retain the value in the catalog, you do need to polish it up. ‘La Grande Illusion’ is not going to be a blockbuster, but our revenues come from long-term worldwide exploitation, and these reissues help the films to maintain their value.”

That’s particularly true with the advent of digital distribution, high-definition TV and Blu-ray. “In television, the present and certainly the future are HD, so for films to have a future on TV they need to be in HD,” Rodden says.

He notes that older films often clean up better for these new formats than films made in 1980s or 1990s, when the quality of the original film stock itself was not as good.

“You think old films aren’t up to theatrical standards of today, but actually they were all shot on good quality film, so they can be amazing,” says Rodden.

The restored version of “The Grand Illusion” was released theatrically in France in February, and a couple of weeks later on Blu-ray, grossing a healthy $130,000 on a handful of screens, and selling 1,500 units to date. Pic has grossed $74,000 in the U.K., where it also had a DVD release, with the U.S. following in May via Rialto Films.

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