The story of two men, one married, the other the lover of the other's wife, who meet in the trenches of the First World War, and how their tale becomes a microcosm for the horrors of war.
J'Accuse! (1919) - J'Accuse (1919)
J'Accuse was the only "peace film" to be made in Europe during World War I. Gance, who had served briefly in that conflict, returned to active service in 1918 to film harrowing battle scenes of soldiers actually under fire. Parts of the film were shot during the battle of St. Mihiel, one of the most significant of the war. Also, for the famous "March of the Dead" sequence at film's end, Gance used real soldiers home on leave from the front -- most of whom were killed within the following weeks. Some titles are taken from real letters written by soldiers to their families.
Gance had secured enthusiastic support from the wartime French government, which saw the project as a call to patriotism. When it finally occurred to a government official to question the title and ask exactly who or what was being accused, Gance replied: "The war and its stupidity."
The film stars Maryse Dauvray as Edith, a young Frenchwoman who is in love with a poet (Romuald Joubé) but is forced by her father (Maxime Desjardins) into a marriage with a much older man (Séverin-Mars). Edith is captured by the Germans and endures multiple rapes that result in her becoming pregnant. Edith's husband initially thinks that the poet is the father of her child, and the story ends in tragedy with both men seeing action in the trenches.
Historian Kevin Brownlow, who dedicated his book The Parade's Gone By to Gance, described J'Accuse as "a miracle film." It introduced techniques developed by Gance including rapid-cut editing and expressionistic camerawork and lighting. The film, a huge success in Europe, originally ran 14 reels (three hours) but was truncated to ten reels for its American release, damaging its continuity and preventing it from becoming a success in the U.S. The re-editing blunted the anti-war slant and gave it a happier ending.
The reconstruction, a Flicker Alley Digital Edition from the Lobster Film Collection, began when Gance's friend and heir Nelly Kaplan provided a 35mm master print of a restoration by the Cinematheque Francaise, taken from a shortened reissue in 1922. Incomplete original prints were sourced from the Lobster Collection and the Czech archive in Prague. Happily, an almost complete copy of the original edit (although in poor condition) was found in the Netherlands Filmmuseum. All these elements were transferred to high-definition video and conflated by the Netherlands Filmmuseum to make the best and most complete edition possible.
Producer: Charles Pathé
Director/Screenplay: Abel Gance
Cinematography: Marc Bujard, Léonce-Henri Burel, Maurice Forster
Film Editing: Andrée Danis, Abel Gance
Cast: Romuald Joubé (Jean Diaz), Séverin-Mars (François Laurin), Maryse Dauvray (Edith Laurin), Maxime Desjardins (Maria Lazare), Angèle Guys (Angele). BW-150m.
Producers: Serge Bromberg, Eric Lange, Jeffery Masino
Reconstruction and Editing: Nederland Film Museum, Mark Paul Meyer, Annike Kross
Digital Restoration: Eric Lange, Lobster Films
English Titles: Lenny Borger
Music: Robert Israel Orchestra
by Roger Fristoe
J'Accuse! (1919) - J'Accuse (1919)
What it was, instead, was a phenomenally efficient mechanism for turning once beautiful cities into smoking rubble, destroying wealth, and rendering human beings into piles of meat. When all was done, 10 million people had died. That didn't even count the wounded and missing, which would push the number closer to 40 million.
Most people who saw this horror firsthand didn't live to tell about it. Abel Gance did. He was not yet one of the world's most acclaimed film directors--it would take the nightmare of WWI to turn him into that.
Gance was conscripted into the French army's Cinematograph Section, a natural enough home for him and a tolerable posting, all things considered. But it didn't last. Soon he was transferred to the Ecole Militaire, and then to the Transport Corps, and then to the poison gas factory. It was emblematic of the idiotic priorities that took over during this dark time to take one of the country's great cultural treasures and send him off to manufacture poison gas.
He sickened, his skin turned yellow. Gance was already stricken with early stages of tuberculosis, and the conditions of the poison gas plant only hastened his deterioration. Every night, the officers dragged away the corpses of those workers who died during that day's shift. This was surely the end for Abel Gance.
But a poison gas factory that kills your own troops is a bad military strategy, and even the madmen running WWI could see that. The Inspection Committee came to swap out the sickest troops for fresh replacements, and thereby minimize the on-site death toll. They didn't just reassign Gance, they dismissed him--back to civilian life, and his art.
But Gance did not return easily to his old life. He brought something back with him, and it would not leave him be.
In 1918, Gance embarked on an ambitious multipart epic called Ecce Homo (originally titled The Black Sun). After shooting hours upon hours of footage, he was still far from finished. Distributor Pathe inquired about the status of the project they had been financing, and Gance had to admit he was now compelled by his conscience to switch gears. He started to describe a completely different thing to Pathe--a film designed to expose the stupidity of war.
As the story goes, Pathe read his impassioned pitch, and was sold. We'll write off the debt on Ecce Homo, you go make J'Accuse (1919), they wrote back.
This he would do in the names of his friends who had died in battle, giving their lives to a pointless cause. The idea had been percolating in his head since he first scribbled it in his journal in 1917--what if the dead rose from their graves to indict the living? What if you had to face the fallen soldiers who had laid down their lives in the service of this stupid war--could you look them in the eye and honestly tell them their sacrifice was worth it? Who could?
Gance's film would have other elements, too--conventional characters, a melodramatic plot--but the heart of the epic was this simple idea. Face the dead, and dare not look away in shame.
To film this sequence, Gance turned to the military for assistance. If the army could enlist a filmmaker, then why couldn't a filmmaker enlist the army? Gance got permission to film at the front, using real soldiers to stage a fake battle. And he borrowed 2,000 troops, on a brief respite from fighting in Verdun, to play their own ghosts.
This is no metaphor. The living dead soldiers depicted in the film were played by real soldiers, each one of them destined to return to the front lines just a week later. They had been there already and knew what to expect. They knew to expect to die. But before they returned to their certain slaughter, they played the angry, anguished casualties of war, accusing the world of their own murders. Their performances are authentic, and horrifying. J'Accuse sits uncomfortably close to the line of being an arthouse snuff film. True to his word, Gance dared audiences not to look away in shame.
To film the opening sequence in which soldiers in formation spell out the title "J'Accuse," Gance and his assistant director, the surrealist Blaise Cendrars, choreographed masses of soldiers under the command of a certain General Vincent. The General watched Gance direct the men into position, but did not yet realize what was happening. He asked the director what word they were spelling, and Abel tersely replied, "You'll see." The title came into clarity--a phrase charged with political connotations. A generation earlier, those words had been used in Émile Zola's incendiary criticism of the Dreyfus affair, and had since become an all-purpose slogan for any attack on the powerful.
General Vincent shuddered. "This is very moving, but we are at war. So what can I do?"
"Try and stop the war," answered Gance.
From its audacious opening title to the sucker punch of its climax, Gance filled the frame with emotion and energy. It was an instant sensation. At the age of 29, Abel Gance was in the elite of world-renowned film directors, his name uttered in the same breath as D.W. Griffith's.
In the home country of D.W. Griffith, however, the story was different. The American perspective on WWI was substantially different from Europe's--the American death toll was comparably less. The United States had the privilege of distance, which made it easier to believe that the Great War might End All Wars. J'Accuse did not reach American theaters until 1921, under the title I Accuse. By that point, United Artists had edited out almost two-thirds of the original running time, but found time to insert an opening address to the audience by President Harding, and new footage emphasizing how American troops had come to the aid of the French. I Accuse was so bowdlerized as to undercut much of Gance's original intentions.
For generations, the recut versions proliferated. Thanks to the diligent work of dedicated film restorationists, the original 1919 version of J'Accuse has been recovered, allowing Gance's angry masterpiece to return from the dead to indict the living all over again.
By David Kalat
Kevin Brownlow, liner notes to the Flicker Alley DVD J'Accuse
Charles Drazin, The Faber Book of French Cinema
James M. Walsh & Steven Philip Kramer, "Abel Gance's Accustaion Against War," Cinema Journal (Spring 1975)
Abel Gance's J'Accuse (1919) - A new French-titled edition, painstakingly matched to the original 1919 release, is now on DVD
The film proper begins in the idealized perfection of a French village where peasants relax in outdoor cafes, laughing and drinking as if in paradise. When war is declared, the village erupts in nationalistic fervor, inspired by a misguided fantasy of battle glory that will soon give way to the realization of the horror of war. Against this backdrop a romantic triangle plays out. Poet Jean Diaz (Romuald Joubé) pines for his former sweetheart Edith (Maryse Dauvray), who is trapped in a miserable marriage to a François (Séverin-Mars), a boor and a bully as brutish as Jean is sensitive and romantic. Afraid of Edith straying while he's at war, François has her sent away to a far away village, where she is captured by the invading German army. When Jean joins Francois' unit, they refuse to even speak to one another until an act of courage and sacrifice brings them together. What begins as a melodrama of star-crossed lovers ripped apart by war transforms into a veritable love story between two men, comrades in arms brought together by battle and bonded by the mutual love of the same woman. Gance's tale takes us back and forth between the battle and the homefront, charting the losses and sacrifices of everyone along the way. By the third act (Gance divides his film in three separate parts) all fantasy of the glory of battle is buried in the mud and blood of the new industrial warfare and no one, soldier or civilian, escapes unscathed. The accusations only become more damning as a shell-shocked Jean returns as the conscience of the village, a holy fool who gathers his neighbors together to tell of his haunting vision of the dead soldiers rising from the field of battle and marching home to demand that the human race change its ways and be worthy of their sacrifice.
Gance had served in World War I as cameraman and later worked in a gas plant, where he started to develop tuberculosis and was sent home by a generous officer. "He saved my life," Gance confessed. J'Accuse may have been his way of thanking him. It was surely his way of honoring the soldiers and civilians who did not survive the war while trying to offer (in his own words) "proof of the horror and stupidity of war." The epic drama is angry and tender and horrifying and touching, all of it conveyed by his powerful and delicate imagery and sophisticated techniques. As the villagers prance and cheer in the wake of the declaration of war, Gance offers his perspective on the human merriment by cutting to a scene of dancing skeletons: imagery of doom that eludes a citizenry caught up in their fantasy of glorious battle. As the reality sets in, Gance captures the tenderness of the men saying their goodbyes to wives and loved ones before heading to the front in a simple but evocative montage of hands tenderly reaching out to hands, putting out a candle and cleaning up after a last meal at home. So much sadness and fear is conveyed in the simple movements and the understated body language.
Throughout the film, Gance intersperses delicate scenes of grace with terrible images of horror. The deathbed of an elderly woman, who has peacefully slipped away while listening to a beloved poem, is lit with ethereal elegance and an almost saintly glow, an image worthy of Griffith's beatification of Lillian Gish. In the next scene, the terrible rape of an innocent by the enemy is suggested by the looming shadows of distinctively helmeted soldiers filling the frame as the girl cowers below, an image that anticipates Murnau's use of shadow in Nosferatu a few years later.
The third act, which opens on the haunting image of a dead soldier, his face frozen in a horrific grin, delivers a survey of the death and devastation of trench warfare with evocative scenes of expressionist suggestion and documentary imagery of real warfare. Gance's camera lights upon the faces of real soldiers for a heartbreaking sequence where muddy and brutalized and exhausted men write letters home to loved ones, praying for peace or preparing their loved ones for their (what they believe is inevitable) death. The sentiments expressed were no fiction but real letters from friends of Gance who never returned from the war. For the haunting march of the dead, Gance used 2,000 real soldiers who were on a one-week furlough. They weren't acting: the hollow looks and exhausted shuffle of dead men walking were the real thing. With the participation of the French and American forces, Gance took his cameras to the front lines to shoot genuine battle footage for the Battle of St. Mihel.
Abel Gance began shooting his harrowing anti-war drama while World War I was raging, when such sentiments were certainly not encouraged by a government straining to support the war effort, yet he managed to secure the cooperation of the French military by representing the film as a patriotic portrait of the war. Such a project was undeniably a risk at the time, but by the time the film was complete and released in 1919, the war was over and all sentiments of nationalistic duty and battle glory was replaced by mourning. France was devastated and the film was appropriately devastating. Even more astonishing than Gance's passionate drive to create his vision under such conditions, however, is the sophistication of his technique and his storytelling: the rapid editing (which he perfected in his later masterpieces La Roue and
The Flicker Alley DVD is a labor of love completed with the participation of Turner Classic Movies. The print source is a reconstruction undertaken in 2007 by the Nederlands Filmmuseum and Lobster Films in France, using a variety of archival prints and materials. Numerous copies of varying lengths were used, including a single surviving tinted nitrate copy, a single reel of original camera negative and a reconstructed print made by the Cinemateque Francais in the fifties, to reconstruct the longest and most complete version possible. The print is sparingly tinted with subtle but effective hints of color, and features French intertitles (many of them from the original print) with English subtitles. The 166-minute film is spread across two discs, with the break coming between the second and third parts. The restoration is excellent and Robert Israel's score makes a fine dramatic counterpart. The disc also features two short films from wartime France offering archival footage of life on the homefront and on the battlefield and a booklet featuring an excellent essay by silent film historian and Abel Gance expert Kevin Brownlow, an essay exploring the influence of the film upon author Virginia Woolf and notes on the reconstruction and restoration of the film.
To order J'Accuse, click here.
by Sean Axmaker
Abel Gance's J'Accuse (1919) - A new French-titled edition, painstakingly matched to the original 1919 release, is now on DVD
Filmed in part on the battlefield of St. Mihiel, during battle.
The soldiers in the March of the Dead sequence were real soldiers on leave from the front. Most of them were killed within the next few weeks.
Re-edited into a shorter version entitled I Accuse (1921), intended for American audiences, with a less universal anti-war slant and a more anti-German stance, and with a happy ending.
Director Abel Gance managed to secure the enthusiastic support of the wartime French government by presenting this anti-war classic to the relevant officials as a fervently patriotic film. Not until an official watching French soldiers form ranks to spell out the film title for the opening credits did anyone in the French government bother to ask who or what the film accused. Gance's answer: "The war and its stupidity."