October 9, 1921: “J’accuse” by Abel Gance
Next month, on October 9, 1921 is the anniversary of the French classic silent movie, “J’accuse.” This is not the movie with the title, ‘J’Accuse, (An Officer and a Spy,)” by Roman Polansky, that was released in August 2019, about the accusations against the French Jewish artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus in 1894. Owen Gleiberman wrote a great article about the Polansky movie, in “Variety”, on August 30, 2019. Find it here: https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/jaccuse-an-office-and-a-spy-review-roman-polanski-1203319146/
The movie, released in the US in October 1919, is about “two men who love the same woman and meet in the trenches of the First World War. Their tale becomes a microcosm for the horrors of the war.” Find the entire movie on YouTube, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiqKNwxL6oc
Which, in full transparency, I think the movie is in the top-20 most compelling, yet undeniably and perpetually neurotic movies of all time. It certainly rivals the work of Ingmar Bergman’s work.
One of the most disturbing scenes – among many truly disturbing scenes, is the classic, “return of the dead,” sequence. It is best described by writer Kevin Brownlow, in his 1968 book, “The Parades Gone By.” Mr. Brownlow explains, “The sequence of the ‘return of the dead’ at the end of the film was shot in the south of France, using 2000 soldiers who had come back on leave.
Abel Gance, who both wrote and directed the movie, recalled, according to Brownlow, “The conditions in which we filmed were profoundly moving… These men had come straight from the Front – from Verdun – and they were due back eight days later. They played the dead knowing that in all probability they’d be dead themselves before long. Within a few weeks of their return, eighty per cent had been killed…
For the film’s opening title, a large group of soldiers, filmed from above, is formed up to shape the letters J…A…C…C…U…S… E. In the middle of preparing the shot, a general asked Gance what was happening. Gance stalled until the shot was complete, and then explained to the startled general that he was “accusing the war… accusing men… accusing universal stupidity”.
In the final scenes of the film, according to Brownlow, Gance’s accusations, through the mouth of Jean Diaz, seem to be levelled against those who have not cared enough – the civilians who enjoyed another life, or those who profited from the war, or who simply forgot what it meant.
The soldiers risen from the dead are said to be content to return to their rest once reassured by the living that their sacrifice has not been in vain. Diaz’s final accusation is made against the sun for being a mute witness to so much horror.
Asked whether he regarded J’accuse as a pacifist film, Gance replied: “I’m not interested in politics… But I am against war because war is futile. Ten or twenty years afterward, one reflects that millions have died and all for nothing. One has found friends among one’s old enemies, and enemies among one’s friends.
According to a preview of the movie on YouTube: J’accuse is a 1919 French silent film directed by Abel Gance. It juxtaposes a romantic drama with the background of the horrors of World War I, and it is sometimes described as a pacifist or anti-war film. Work on the film began in 1918, and some scenes were filmed on real battlefields. The film’s powerful depiction of wartime suffering, and particularly its climactic sequence of the “return of the dead”, made it an international success, and confirmed Gance as one of the most important directors in Europe. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiqKNwxL6oc]
Romuald Joubé as the poet Jean Diaz
Maxime Desjardins as Maria Lazare
Séverin-Mars as François Laurin
Angèle Guys as Angèle, Édith’s daughter
Maryse Dauvray as Édith Laurin, the wife of François
Mancini as Mother Diaz
Angèle Decori as Marie, Lazare’s servant