Even among film buffs, silent films are understood to be for the brave. These films offer too many challenges for most viewers: dialogue, of course, is entirely absent, the acting is overdone by contemporary standards, and in general the films were created for a culture roughly 100 years gone.
Of course, the medium will never totally disappear from memory. Most people with a liberal arts degree have probably seen at least one of silent film’s heavy-hitters, whether it be Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), or one of Chaplin’s great silent comedies. Even if they never see another silent film in their lives, I sincerely hope they felt the eerie magic that the best silent movies can produce.
Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919) is a silent French film known mostly to people who study film seriously. Those who are fortunate enough to witness J’Accuse will know beyond a doubt silent film’s power to enchant. Nearly three hours long, the film is utterly engrossing, the silver light of its innovation and humanity shining through its flaws.
J’Accuse tells the story of Jean Diaz (Romuald Joubé), a tender-hearted poet, and François Laurin (Séverin-Mars), a brutal, jealous hunter. François is married to Edith (Maryse Dauvray), but Edith and Jean are in love. With the onset of World War I, François is called to the front lines, to be followed in one month by Jean. François’ jealousy flares with the knowledge that his wife and Jean have a whole month together without him. When Jean eventually joins François as his commanding officer, jealousy turns to tension. However, Jean risks his life to spare François, and the two form an unlikely bond over their shared love for Edith.
Though J’Accuse is ostensibly a film about war, most of the war takes place in the background of this love triangle. Mortars explode as François furiously scribbles a letter beside the barbed wire protecting the trench. As bodies fall around them, François and Jean reminisce about all the little things that make Edith so beautiful. Jean seems to miss the fact that mortars are flying by his head, but he develops shellshock nonetheless.
The home front, ultimately, is the place where the war hits hardest in J’Accuse. All the suffering of World War I centers on Edith, who is kidnapped not long after the two men in her life go to the front. She eventually makes it home, but not unscathed. She has given birth to a daughter after being raped by several German soldiers.
Edith and Jean try to raise the girl, Angèle (Angèle Guys), without François’ knowledge. The emotional heft of the war has made François a gentler man, but Jean and Edith still have no doubt that he would kill Angèle if he knew she were the daughter of German soldiers. François soon finds out about the girl and tries to kill her, but Jean quickly brings him around. Thus, the awkward friendship between the two soldiers is made the more unusual by the presence of this child raised by Edith and her lover, François’ new best friend.
François returns to the front to avenge his wife. Not wanting his friend to be jealous and unhappy, Jean follows, leaving Edith at home with Angèle. War eventually exacts its final toll, but not before Jean the poet is given a chance to enlighten his townsfolk about the cost of war in the film’s climactic focal sequence.
J’Accuse is a messy picture. The title (translating to I Accuse!), the director, and much of what has been written about the film insist that it is a pacifist manifesto. As such, it fails. The film ends with Jean accusing his fellow Frenchmen and the sun itself for being guilty bystanders to war’s terror. But this ending seems to have little to do with the rest of the film, which offers a picture of an uneasy surrogate-family developing hand-in-hand with the war.
Their happiness is itself largely unbelievable; the friendship that Jean and François share is so unique that it hardly seems possible. Edith returns from her exile with her hair tousled, but once she combs it she seems to suffer no further physical or emotional trauma from her kidnapping and rape.
The happiness these people share in these extraordinary circumstances is surprisingly effective on the viewer’s emotions. Whatever the film’s shortcomings of plot and character development, J’Accuse remains a captivating piece of art. Director Abel Gance, a contemporary of D.W. Griffith, expands the horizons of film in J’Accuse just as Griffith did with his films. Gance’s repeated use of superimposition to create the sense of spirits floating weightlessly within the living world is particularly striking. The director employs a recurring superimposed image of skeletons dancing in a circle that may be the most chilling use of human bones in film, period.
Perhaps only film scholars can truly appreciate the nuances of Gance’s innovations in J’Accuse, but the overall effect of his efforts will not be lost on the more casual viewer. Gance coaxes the same magic from his limited medium that D.W. Griffith and Fritz Lang bring out in their masterworks. And whatever the flaws of J’Accuse, the film does avoid the dubious social philosophy of Metropolis and the downright disgusting politics of Birth of a Nation.
Though the least famous, J’Accuse is the best of these three examples of silent films. It delivers innovation in spades while telling an engrossing story that has a human heart at its core; Metropolis and Birth give the former and try for the latter, but only J’Accuse fully delivers.
Flicker Alley presents the restoration of this 1919 film in an altogether elegant package. The lengthy film is spread across two DVDs, the second of which includes two short bonus features. One of these is a 30-minute comedy titled Paris Pendant la Guerre (Paris During the War) (1915). Robert Israel, whose robust score elevates the restored print of J’Accuse, provides lumbering organ accompaniment here that makes this short film, already indecipherable for modern audiences, seem to last an eternity. The other additional feature is the 15-minute Fighting the War (1916), a collection of some interesting real war footage shot by “adventurer” Donald C. Thompson.
Of more direct concern to viewers who enjoyed the film will be the essays that are included in the DVD booklet. Kevin Brownlow gives the film some context, including quotes from his interviews with Gance, in his essay “The Waste of War: Abel Gance’sJ’Accuse“. Rather than simply showering the film with praise, Brownlow offers a thorough review of the film that criticizes its weaker points while still appreciating it for the impressive whole that it is.
Leslie K. Hankins offers a brief essay detailing the similarities between J’Accuse and Virginia Woolf’s anti-war novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Though a fairly simple comparison, this essay provides some interesting points about the advances made by Gance’s groundbreaking film. To end the booklet, Annike Kross of the Nederlands Filmmuseum details the work that went into restoring J’Accuse for this DVD release.
Like so many wonderful silent films, J’Accuse is a jewel that few will behold. But anyone willing to try and appreciate film as an almost-entirely visual experience would do well to make the effort with Gance’s masterpiece as it is presented here, newly restored to inspire film lovers with its otherworldly glow.