A superlative restoration by Philippe Schoeller of Abel Gance's J'accuse (1919) was screened in Paris on November 11th, and is now available on arte tv, only until 11th December. It was made within months of the end of the 1914-18 war, and scenes were shot on battlegrounds scarred by fresh craters, and in trenches hardly recovered from damp and shellfire. In 1938, Gance remade J'accuse, turning it (by his standards) into a fairly conventional war movie. This 1919 version is altogether more remarkable. The cinematography is state-of-the art. Nearly every frame is brilliantly inventive, using unusual angles and shadows. Some are shot through a pinhole, with claustrophobic effect. Even the opening credits, which show the cameras used making the film lined in a row like strange, alien creatures. Gance would make his name with long, indulgent extravaganzas like Napoléon (1927) but this first J'accuse is a masterpiece of intense focus and concentration. Excellent new soundtrack, too.
A panoramic long shot with soldiers. A figure in silhouette blows a whistle; the soldiers instantly rearrange to form the word "J'accuse " with their bodies.Throughout the film, the words reappear in different forms, an insistent leitmotiv that cannot be ignored. In a village, peasants are dancing. Jean Diaz, a poet, spots a woman, Edith. They fall in love. "Beware, she's married" says his mother. Jean keeps his poems in a journal "Les Pacifiques", lavishly illustrated with watercolours done in a stylised modernism. Somehow, a vision of Edith being raped by her husband.Her breast falls out of her blouse, revealing her nipple. How philistine Hollywood was, and how it blighted film as art. War is declared. The villagers celebrate. Edith's father, an old soldier, sees skeletons dancing. Edith's husband, François Laurin, sends her to his parents' home in the war zone. When Jean hears the news, the words J'accuse pop up, formed by images of women in chains.
Jean and François serve together in the trenches. The film captures the tension between the two in lucid detail. Despite their rivalry, they're friends and decent men. In the midst of battle, Jean writes poetry, while shells fall around him. Jean covers for François on a dangerous mission behind German lines, blowing up the German ammunition stores. Jean and François learn mutual respect. They both love Edith. Surreal juxtapositions of battle scenes, cultured images like the Three Graces, and more dancing skeletons. Jean's mother lies dying, so he's called back home. The old lady has Torah candles in her room, a detail shown several times, so it must have meaning. He recites his poems for her: we see images of woods, sunsets, and images of Edith (filmed in transparency) seen juxtaposed over the surreal watercolour paintings in Jean's book of poems.
Running through a rainstorm, Edith returns to the village, telling Jean how she was raped by the Germans and now has an illegitimate daughter. Edith's father cannot tolerate the child's presence so she's sent to live with Jean, who dotes on her, yet shows her how to write the word J'accuse. Subtly, we're beginning to suspect all is not quite right in Jean's soul.
Back at the front, François rejoices at the news of Edith's return, though he doesn't know what's happened to her. The soldiers throw a wild party - African troops take part, playing strange instruments. When he gets home, he finds the babe and think it's Jean's. Edith is remote. Heartbroken, François cuddles his dog. At heart he's a decent man who can't express himself the way Jean the poet can. Then he realizes that the child is Edith's. He tries to kill Jean but Edith tells him the truth.
Jean and François both return to the front. Now the battle scenes are more horrific. A man is seen, smiling, but he's dead, frozen in the mud of the trench. We see a vision of an ancient Gaulois warrior standing beside the soldiers, who don't notice. The intertitles become more elaborate, like formal poetry. Back in the village, the children are playing, putting a pickelhaube on Edith's daughter, making her "shoot" a little boy. She refuses. Edith is seen, her arms stretched out, as though she's crucified. Back at the front, on the eve of battle, Jean has a premonition.. Long sequences of scenes from the battlefield: giant cannons and rows of soldiers running, the living among the dead. Already we see Gance's panoramic perspective that will appear so well in Napoléon. Jean goes mad and is taken to hospital. François is wounded and dies thinking of his beloved dog, holding the hands of a comrade.
Jean returns to the village, but walks through the streets at night, mumbling strange words. He's haunted, seeing ghosts everywhere. He tells the villagers about the "prodigieuse miracle", of the battlefield covered in crosses (see above) which turn back into corpses, who then come alive. "Rise up, my friends!". The corpses get up and march til they read the Arc de Triomphe. "Ils avaient la figure terreuse et les orbits pleins d'etoiles, Ils venaient innombrables du fond de l'horizon, comme les vagues reveillées".
Then Jean confronts the villagers, What have they done to respect the dead The woman who parties instead of mourning, the men who've profited from the suffering of the poor, "J'accuse, J'accuse, J'accuse! " The corpses march into the village and confront the villagers.
François stares through a window. The villagers reach their arms out, but Jean tells them that the dead cannot come back. It's enough that the dead know that their lives were not lost in vain. The corpses depart, wooden crosses on their shoulders.
Jean retrieves his book and sees the paintings of peaceful scenes. "Le soldat a tué en lui le poete". He sees a ray of sunshine. "Attends-tu, soleil, avant de disparaitre. Chez les morts, ce soir, J'en vais. Et si mon main s'agrippe au bord de ma fenetre, c'est que, caprice amer !.....pour mourir je veux etre a la place ou je te chantais". And he accuses the sun itself "d'avoir illuminé l'effroyable Epopée muet, placie et sans dégout comme un face horrible a la langue coupée, a ton balcon d'azur, sadiqument crispée, d'avoir regardé jusqu'au bout !" Jean collapses, lifeless. Outside, the lanscape remains immobile, as the sun rises.