If you watch only one film in 2009, make it Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, a film that I cannot recommend too highly.
This was an immense hit in 1919 (filling five London cinemas, including the London Pavilion, without having been submitted to the prissy British censor). Then, like most silent films, it faded from memory, but is now available on DVD. Before seeing it, I’d come across tantalising references to it as an anti-war film, and had seen stills showing the dead rising to protest against the war. But the movie is not as simple as that.
The first sections of the film tell a story rather typical of the war years. In an idyllic French village, Francois mistreats his wife, and Jean, a poet, falls in love with her. When war comes both men join the Army. Put together in the same unit, they understandably clash, but the shared experience of war brings them together, and they bond. Jean even comes to understand that Francois loves the woman he has mistreated. This kind of depiction of the war as a moral agent inspiring men rise above past arguments and joining together for the sake of national unity is frequently found in British war fiction of the time, and presumably in French as well. So far so ordinary, though my short description does no justice to the skill with which the film is put together, or the resonance that Gance’s direction adds to the simple story.
The second half of the film becomes stranger and richer. Jean, deranged and inspired by war, takes on a new identity – the poet who wrote the life-affirming “Ode to the Sun” in peacetime now becomes “J’Accuse”, a soldier –prophet. On the battlefield he inspires the soldiers by telling them that beside every Frenchman there is always a Gaul. We see a ghostly Asterix-figure striding down a trench, and then leading soldiers across No-Man’s Land. (The film was partly shot, by the way, on the desolate battlefields of 1919. Some shots of documentary footage are included in the sequence about the St Mihel fighting.)
Francois is killed, with Jean clasping his hand as he dies, and a more ordinary film might have given us a conventional narrative closure, with Jean reunited with hislove, but with the memory of Francois revered. What happens is more disturbing.
Jean goes back to the village, but is deranged (mad or inspired – the viewer is asked to decide). We have already seen some disturbing scenes in the village, especially one where children play at atrocities. A little girl is bullied into acting the part of a German shooting a hostage, so that the others can act out their hostility. A very odd little scene, not connected with the plot.
The deranged poet goes on a secret mission, delivering letters around the village. These are invitations to come and hear news of the dead. The villagers gather, and Jean (though now he has become “J’Accuse”) relates a vision, of a sea of wooden crosses, from which the dead arise. Gance shows a vast crowd rising from the ground, and picking up their crosses. They are coming home to see if France is worthy of their sacrifice (their progress intercut with film of the staid, normalising victory ceremonies in Paris). The prophet begins his accusations, of those who have betrayed the dead – the profiteers, the exploiters, and the women who enjoyed themselves while their husbands were away. All of the villagers are guilty in one way or another. They are induced to share Jean’s vision of the dead, and so become worthy. The dead pick up their crosses again, but now the crosses are lighter.
The sequence is astonishing, but very much in tune with other texts of the immediate post-war years, in which civilians are found wanting in contrast to the soldiers, and especially the dead.
Having delivered his message, Jean remains “J’Accuse”. He finds his pre-war poems and tears them up. “The soldier in him had killed the poet” a title tells us. The last poem he comes across is his pre-war affirmation, the ode to the Sun, which celebrated its life-giving power. A new version of this ends the film, with the sun now cursed for deceiving mankind. Shots of beautiful countryside merge into ruined battlefields, and the ending is a stark statement of unbelief.
Is it an “anti-war” film? It is very definitely with the French in their fight against the invader, and it shows war as bringing out the best in people as well as destroying them. War is shown as terrible, but also possibly as a revelation of truth.
How do we read the ending? When Jean is transformed from poet to prophet, is that a gain or loss? Has war shown him a vision of truth – the horror of a godless world – or has it stolen his capacity for spontaneous pleasure in life? Or both.
Anyway, it’s a very rich and puzzling film. I gather that Gance remade it in the thrirties when there was a vogue for “anti-war” films in the wake of All Quiet On the Western Front. From what I can gather, this sound film is considerably less ambiguous, but it’s still probably worth seeing.