As is well-known, Goebbels declared Grand Illusion to be “Cinematic Public Enemy Number One,” and the Nazis confiscated prints of the film wherever they could be seized. It is less well-known that a Nazi officer in occupied Paris—Dr. Frank Hensel, a co-founder of the International Federation of Film Archives—safeguarded many films by shipping them back to the Reichsfilmarchiv. For years, it’s been assumed that the original camera negative of Grand Illusion was destroyed in 1942 by an Allied air raid on Paris; but in fact, thanks to Hensel, the primary materials of Cinematic Public Enemy Number One were by then in a vault in Berlin.

That vault happened to be in the sector that became the Russian Zone. In 1945, the camera negative of Grand Illusion rode to Moscow on a Red Army truck, along with a multitude of other films, to build the Gosfilmofond. But the Soviet archivists apparently did not realize what they were holding–and neither did the French archivists at the Cinémathèque de Toulouse, who received the camera negative in the mid-sixties as part of an exchange program. Grand Illusion was not considered to be a lost or mutilated film; and so nobody took a close look at the cans until the early nineties, when they were shipped from Toulouse to the main French archive at Bois d’Arcy for cataloguing and preservation.11