J’Accuse

This book [The Parade’s Gone By] is dedicated to Abel Gance not because he had a blemish-free record of sparkling successes, but because, with his silent productions J’Accuse, La Roue and Napoléon, he made a fuller use of the medium than anyone before or since. […] Abel Gance is one of the giants of the cinema. Some historians hail him as the D. W. Griffith of Europe, others dismiss him as the De Mille of France. Both realize his importance, neither fully comprehend his talents.

– Kevin Brownlow (1)

It is certainly due to the indefatigable research and restoration work of Kevin Brownlow that Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1925-7) has become known in recent years in a form reasonably close to the way that audiences originally saw it. Now, the other two titles he extolled nearly forty years ago, J’Accuse (1918-19) and La Roue (The Wheel, 1923) (2) are widely available, thanks to new DVD releases by the enterprising Flicker Alley.

By the time that Gance began filming J’Accuse in the tumult of the last months of the Great War, he already had a filmography of around twenty titles. His early years had followed the almost classic/cliché route of the future great artist. Born in 1889, his parents wanted him to follow a “respectable career”; Gance was attracted to the artistic world. He had given in to his father’s demands and started work as an articled clerk in a law practice, while taking any opportunities to go to the theatre, and doing writing on the side.

It was writing that first connected him with the new world of the cinema. He started off selling scenarios. His first, for Le Portrait de Mireille, was produced in 1910. But Gance felt frustrated with the limited way that the potentials of this new medium were being used. Producers in France, for example, were still insisting that actors had to be seen in full. Close-ups, they claimed, would only confuse an audience.

Gradually, Gance negotiated his writing into a chance to direct. His debut was called La Digue (ou pour sauver la Hollande) (1912) (3). The cast includes Pierre Renoir, brother of the future director, Jean Renoir. And Gance already started pushing new techniques with several medium-close shots. (4)

When Gance began work on J’Accuse, the World War I was still raging. He had been rejected a number of times for military service for health reasons. Instead, he was able to pursue filmmaking, quickly expanding his ideas about what was possible in this new medium. Ultimately, though, he was mobilised into the Cinematograph Section. However, he was soon doing more mundane work loading ammunition. Then he was transferred to a poison-gas factory. This was a horrid experience, and the atmosphere exacerbated his incipient tuberculosis, leading to a sudden demobilisation.

With these experiences, Gance was inspired to begin work on the film that became J’Accuse.

At this time, the new medium was being seen as valuable for reinforcing the war effort or as propaganda for home audiences. Think, for example, of D. W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918). But Gance had a different attitude to what was going on around him, and a different aim for his new film. He was angry. He was upset. His film would be one of the first major products of the new art that could be called anti-war, or perhaps pacifist.

J’Accuse

This passion is certainly embodied in his “title card”. The film’s name is spelled out on screen by soldiers in formation, one of the most graphic title sequences until Saul Bass. The implication is that these are soldiers dead in battle and that the film to follow will be a denunciation of those responsible for their deaths. The title is immediately followed by the director’s credit and Abel Gance takes that with an anything-but-modest card and full self-portrait. He is making sure there is no doubt that his audience will recognise him as the “auteur et metteur en scène”.

During the film’s nearly three-hour running time, he will return to this comment a number of times. Of course, this was a very famous saying, coming into currency with Emile Zola’s use of it in his famous letter denouncing authorities in the Dreyfus case, a clear miscarriage of justice and anti-Semitic prejudice. It was only twenty years since Zola’s letter and the affair that had reverberated through French society. Gance understood all these resonances behind the simple statement.

In one inter-title, “J’Accuse” returns spelled out in letters made from human figures. And it returns with more comments at the end of the film. But for its intensity, there are also elements of this device that I find somewhat problematic, and to which I will return.

If a filmmaker wants to address a large theme, it is nearly always best to embed this in a small, human story. An audience is generally going to be more involved when it sees the “theme” played out and impacting on one or two people with whom they identify. Nearly a decade later, this would be the approach of King Vidor in his great anti-war film, The Big Parade (1925), for example.

Gance introduces us to a small village in Provence, where a festival is being celebrated. Quickly we get to know the three sides of the melodrama’s triangle. Jean Diaz (Romauld Joubé) is a poet, in love with Edith (Maryse Dauvray). But she is married to François (Séverin-Mars), the third side of the triangle. From the start, Gance’s ability to convey ideas through his images is clear. For example, we first see François in a brooding image, seated at a solid timber table, in a large room. One of his hunting dogs has its paws on the table, where that day’s catch, a deer, lies bleeding, its blood dropping on to the black and white checkerboard tiled floor. But cut off from her husband spatially, just as she is emotionally, by the shadows of the lighting, Edith sits gazing out a window on the left of the image. The development of this moment, a close-up of the snarling dog, François smashing his hand on the table and Edith jumping, acts as a concise introduction to his character, and their relationship.

Early on, he has also introduced another image as a metaphor. The festivities of the opening moments are watched over by an owl. We are warned, in a title:

An owl on a midsummer’s night,
soon calamity will be in sight.

Again, this brooding image will be used throughout the film, somewhat melodramatically perhaps, but still as a potent harbinger of doom and a successful visual representation of one aspect of his theme.

This capacity to find images to express or develop character, emotion and ideas is a characteristic of Gance. When Jean goes to war, we are given a highly articulate image of his mother hugging his cello. It is interesting that, though he is working in a silent medium, Gance is not afraid to use images usually associated with sound. Jean’s cello, an expression of his artistic sensibility, is paralleled in La Roue (discussed in detail below), where one of his protagonists is a violin-maker. The idea returns poignantly at the end of the film, when a shell-shocked Jean cradles his cello, not recognising it.

Gance’s classic triangle story is enriched by other elements. The war is not just an issue for one generation. Edith’s father, Maria Lazarre (Maxime Desjardins), is a veteran of 1870 Franco-Prussian war, and an old veteran seeing himself defined by his Legion of Honour, and his map of “My Alsace and Lorraine.” Gance doesn’t need to prosaically point out the damage caused by old soldiers who only remember the glory of their soldier days, again reinforcing his great ability to express complex ideas without words – spoken or written.

There is similar intensity and complexity in the scene when news of the outbreak of war comes to the village. “One day, when happiness shone on the village …” People are going about their daily tasks, ironing, working at the anvil with the family nearby, sewing. Even the canary is chirping blithely in its cane cage. A young couple seem to have special reason to remember that it’s Sunday, 2 August 1914. But the ringing church bell brings all the villagers running down the streets to a central point. Then the fateful words, “It’s war”, are spoken by a small tousled hair tot. Perhaps it seems like a new game to her. One of her playmates asks her, “What’s war?” “I don’t know”, she says.

The excited villagers read the notice of general mobilisation. A young wife faints, but most seem jubilant. Though an elderly man with a tattered bandage across one eye seems pensively disturbed. And an old lady, in black and lace, with a black straw bonnet, joyously exclaims, “Vive la France.”

In a few quick strokes, Gance has given us a complex impression of the hearts and minds of a village, and, by extension of a nation, many of whose citizens are ready to celebrate the fact that they are being taken to war. But the dancing skeletons, the old-timers staring anxiously at the mobilisation poster and some wives perhaps dreading imminent widowhood add a foreboding.

It is in moments like this that Gance’s filmmaking artistry shines – all the more impressive in a medium that was barely two decades old. It is when we need to look at a larger picture that some dissatisfactions start to creep in. Many individual moments in the story of Edith, her husband and her lover, are powerful, poignant, moving. But, overall, important aspects of the narrative are contrived, perhaps justifying aspects of the Gance’s tag as “the De Mille of France”, quoted at the head of this review. There are a number of narratively convenient coincidences. Some causes have an effect almost too sudden to be credible.

Perhaps we are more critical or somewhat unforgiving of these eighty years on. But there are enough great elements in J’Accuse that have lasted, and I do not feel any compulsion to mock some narrative naïveté that would have been completely acceptable to its original audience.

At the same time, they probably mean that, although J’Accuse is a major film – one of the first really great anti-war films, a sweeping epic, compulsively powerful to watch – it is also somewhat diffuse in its focus and, so, its potential for an audience today is somewhat diminished . This is most clearly felt in reflecting on the ideas behind the title itself. “I accuse …” Those words are powerful, angry, magisterial in their simplicity and their directness. Emile Zola understood that when he penned them at the end of his lengthy essay exposing officials, institutions, even the national zeitgeist that had perpetrated the monumental injustice of the Dreyfus case.

At various points in the film, Gance repeats this accusation. When Jean’s mother dies while he is reciting to her one of his poems, we are told, “War kills as much the mothers as the sons.” The image fades into a battlefield with the skeleton’s dance of death superimposed, then back to Jean, who says simply, “J’accuse!”

When Jean, on leave, sets out to teach French to Edith’s child – born as a result of rape by German soldiers – he uses “J’accuse” as the words she practises writing.

Part Three starts with powerful, almost eviscerating scenes of battle in the muddy trenches. It is in this battle that Jean loses his mind … “J’Accuse!”

And at the end of the film, the accusation is repeated once more. At this point, the child is now teaching the poet, and she is using the words, “J’accuse”, that he taught her before becoming shell-shocked. Jean finds a book of his old poems, but “The soldier in him had killed the poet.”

Jean Diaz I was. My name, once sweet, is now “I accuse.” And I accuse you [the sun …] You cast your light on a frightful bout. […] Sadistic from your azure balcony you watched till the final rout.”

With this indictment, Jean collapses, and the sun comes up on a new day. And this fades for the end title to come up on a card with the image of the crucified Christ.

It is powerful and moving. But where are the accusations really directed? Perhaps Gance wants to implicate everyone: those who cheered the coming of war with its promise of glory, those who went off to be soldiers, those who stayed behind and took advantage of the absence of their men, those who profited from the war. In one way or another, Gance includes all these as potentially culpable for war, for The War. And, yet, there is also a vagueness, a sense that, if everyone is guilty, it is almost like no one is guilty.

But, as Kevin Brownlow notes in the booklet accompanying this release, “how fortunate you are, after ninety years, to be able to see J’Accuse.”

* * *

La Roue

[I]s movement not, in fact, drama? Movement, in art, is rhythm. The possibility of inventing new rhythms, of encapsulating the rhythms of life, of intensifying them and varying them infinitely, becomes, at a given moment, the essential problem for cinematographic techniques. I think I resolved this by inventing what has since been called rapid montage. It was in La Roue that I think we saw on the screen for the first time those images of a runaway train, of anger, or passion, of hatred that follow one another with increasing rapidity, one image generating another in an unpredictable rhythm and order, an eruption of visions which, at the time, people thought of as apocalyptic and which are now as common in our cinematographic syntax as enumeration or exclamation in literary syntax. (5)

Gance was a very self-aware filmmaker, and very conscious of the possibilities of the new medium, as well as how it worked on its spectators.

It is not the images that make a film but the soul and the mind of the images and that is why some works leave a hidden trace whereas very beautiful visions do not remain in the memory for more than a week. Very beautiful films do not need to have beautiful images. (6)

This restless curiosity about the potential of cinema, and the way that audiences perceive cinematic effects surely led to the development of the famous triple-screen process that he developed for his most famous epic, Napoléon. This huge triptych had such an impact that any spectator seeing it originally could not but help to be aware of it. He dreamed,

The day three-dimensioned cinema is discovered, cinema will exist, not before. Then, the sense of real enchantment will be a little more developed, we will be able to see a little further into the distance. (7)

But he also sensed that new techniques very quickly become invisible to an audience. Gance was aware that many of his innovations would become overlooked as they became part of the normal way that audiences would see films

You all know the close-up, the astonishing appearance on the screen of the brow, the lips, the eyes of a character who seems to want to go beyond its limits, to lean out of the canvas. The first time a director dared to use the close-up systematically throughout a whole film, it was a real revolution in cinema: a new means of psychological expression, with an extraordinary resonance and an amazingly vibrant subtlety, had been created. Nowadays we don’t pay much attention to it. These hallucinations seem quite normal. That’s because we are already in the domain of the real enchantment I asked you to cultivate in yourselves. The close-up in cinema is the equivalent of the mask in Greek tragedy. (8)

One of the fruits of this impatient technical creativity was the rapid editing technique, a stylistic element he explored in key moments in his next film La Roue.

This four-and-a-half-hour-long epic about a train driver is openly melodrama, but Gance saw very little difference between the epic and the melodramatic. His engine driver is given epic, mythic dimensions. His name, Sisif (Séverin-Mars), is a nod to Sisyphus, condemned by the Gods to repeatedly push a rock up a hill. The story has elements of popular melodrama: a lost child, possible incest, a marriage for money, lost careers and exile. But, as the films of Douglas Sirk will demonstrate several generations later, these larger-than-life events can be a valid canvas for exploring emotions, and the “ordinary man” is just as capable of epic suffering and endurance and heartbreak.

The story effectively falls into two parts. The first was filmed in Nice. Sisif is the hero of a rescue after a train wreck. From this wreck he has plucked a baby girl, Norma, whom he raises as his own daughter. Later, his real son, a violin-maker, is attracted to Norma (Ivy Close) but resists, believing she is his sister. Sisif also has strong feelings for her that are more than paternal. A hasty marriage to a rich suitor seems one way out of the problem.

A tormented heart and heavy drinking lead to Sisif’s being exiled from driving mainline engines to running a tiny remote branch line in the mountains. (This location was actually partly brought about because Gance’s wife was desperately ill with tuberculosis and he hoped the mountain air would be beneficial. But she died on the day that he finished La Roue. His diary notes the irony that he had begun the film the day she became ill. (9))

We have train wrecks, unrequited love, a (literal) cliff-hanger episode, paternal love that leads to Sisif spurning, Lear-like, his beloved daughter. These events may be happening to a humble engine driver, but, just as his name carries its mythic, heroic overtones, other heroic figures are summoned to lend their status to Sisif. As well, the earnestness of the story itself is emphasised by Gance’s use of quotations from a range of writers such as Victor Hugo, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Baudelaire and Camille Claudel. It is a quotation from Claudel – “For we must bear the Cross before the Cross bears us” – that introduces a sequence where Sisif is represented as assuming Christ-like sorrows, bearing his Cross (literally as well as metaphorically) across a dramatic glacier. The film is replete with similar breath-taking visuals.

Gance was strongly aware of the importance of editing. He was thinking deeply about the capacity of the eye to absorb information and in appropriate scenes incorporated an approach he called “accelerated montage”.

I have often in my films used more advanced and more daring techniques than my comrades. Essentially these techniques consist in bringing the fundamental laws of rhythm into the foreground. As you saw, this tendency is manifested in La Roue, through accelerated montage. […]

Violating most of our usual ways of seeing, I have at such moments speculated, then, on the rapid and simultaneous perception of the quarter or even an eighth of a second. The eyes of this generation can hardly bear the strain of these moments of paroxysm, but we have to construct this visual counterpoint which our children will consider elementary and which can to a great extent be apprehended even now if we are attentive enough. (10)

It is interesting to note that Gance was applying this deliberate, theoretical and analytical approach to his editing in La Roue in 1923. This is two years before Sergei M. Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), which is regularly credited with being the pioneering example of film editing. It would be interesting to hear Gance’s comments on current films that use a very fast, fragmented editing style. But an important difference is that Gance did not apply a style of short, quick cuts for the entire film, only when he felt the story justified it. For example, at one point in La Roue, Sisif retells the story of the train crash from which he plucked Norma. Here some scenes are little more than flashes. But other shots in the film are long, slow, meditative.

From our perspective today, again there are some jarring elements that we do notice. As in J’Accuse, there are events in the narrative that strain our credibility. The location of Sisif’s home is dramatically impressive but hardly probable. Elie (Gabriel de Gravone) seems to have developed his skill in violin-making in a very short time. Why would Jacques de Hersan (Pierre Magnier), from his background of wealth and high society, be enamoured of an engine driver’s daughter if the narrative had not required it?

There are also inconsistencies in the lighting of some scenes. In the early days of filmmaking, very slow film and inadequate artificial lighting meant many interiors were filmed outside on open-sided sets. Sometimes this led to some incongruities, with curtains and table coverings blowing in the wind. Some of Gance’s interiors in La Roue have this same feel. Within a sequence there are sometimes separate images that bear the hallmark of a carefully crafted image, shadows dramatically chosen to highlight an aspect of the drama. Then the next shot intercut is flatly lit, with no clear indication of a realistic or dramatically justifiable light source. But these blemishes are in no way fatal – just little characteristics of a significant, impressive and powerful film.

* * *

Both J’Accuse and La Roue have been released in an impeccable DVD format (NTSC Region 0) by Flicker Alley. This company has quickly earned a reputation for exciting, invaluable, compulsory releases of Silent Cinema. In both cases, the films are spread over two discs – because of their length, a sensible decision allowing the best quality reproduction of two recently and carefully restored films. J’Accuse was reconstructed by the Nederlands Filmmuseum. La Roue was reconstructed by Eric Lange and David Shepard at Lobster Film Studios in Paris.

As is often the case with silent cinema, there have been many different versions and cuts over the years. Gance himself frequently returned to several of his films, recutting different versions for re-release over the years. In fact, he even made a completely new version of J’Accuse in 1937. Notes explain the sources of material for both films and why we are probably seeing the longest, most accurate versions in more than eighty years.

Both films are also presented with new scores by Robert Israel. Israel (born 1963) has a reputation as one of the most significant composers today writing scores for silent films. His music superbly supports the films without unduly drawing attention to itself – a fault of a recent spate of “Special presentations” of silent films with live music, where the film is almost desecrated by an inappropriate accompaniment.

J’Accuse also includes two short films relating to World War I, the more interesting of which (Fighting the War, 1916) features “amazing and authentic photography from the frontlines by adventurer Donald C. Thompson.

These are two releases to treasure, and to return to from time to time to realise what the cinema is capable of … and where some of its power developed.

Endnotes

  1. Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By (New York: Ballantine Books, 1969). One of the critics to make this comment was Pauline Kael, quoted as describing Gance as “like an avant-garde De Mille” in Norman King, Abel Gance (London: BFI Publishing, 1984).
  2. Dates are as established in King.
  3. Brownlow, p. 601, says the film was made in 1911; King, p. 235, dates it as 1912.
  4. Brownlow, p. 601.
  5. Abel Gance, The Cinema of Tomorrow 1929, quoted from King, p. 68.
  6. Ibid, p. 73.
  7. Ibid, p. 75.
  8. Ibid, p. 67.
  9. Brownlow, p. 623.
  10. Gance, 1929, quoted in King, pp. 71, 72.

About The Author

Peter Hourigan has spent many years going to the movies, being involved with film society and film festival bodies, as well as teaching movies with secondary students. He also leads adult discussion groups with Centre for Adult Education (Melbourne).