Director/Screenwriter: Abel Gance
By Roderick Heath
Of all the great creators of early cinema, Abel Gance seemed the one born with the very stuff of the new medium in his blood, immeasurably talented and determined to stretch the new art to the absolute limit of expressive possibility. And yet he’s always been a figure with a complex legacy. The illegitimate son of a doctor and his working-class mother, Gance was brought up his grandparents in a regional coal mining town until his mother married a Parisian chauffeur and mechanic, whose surname her son took. Although he left school at 14, Gance maintained a voracious fascination for art and history. Initially working as a law clerk, he eventually turned to acting, joining a theatre in Brussels. Gance started writing and selling film scenarios to Gaumont for 50 to 100 francs each, despite his initial disdain for the medium – “You could eat for three days on 50 francs,” he said in the 1960s, by way of simple explanation for getting into that line of work. He made his screen acting debut when he returned to Paris. He contracted tuberculosis, an ailment that would keep him out of the army, but after successful treatment Gance formed a movie production company with some friends, and released his first work as director at the age of 22, La Digue (ou Pour sauver la Hollande), in 1911. Gance made successful films throughout World War I, but signs of the ambition that would make him both a great filmmaker and a hapless victim of industry models and public taste were already manifesting.
Gance would later complain of the total resistance to any sort of innovation he often encountered from studios like Pathe, which for a time wouldn’t accept any movies that didn’t shoot people entirely full-frame. His five-hour epic Victoire de Samothrace, which he refused to cut down, had trouble getting exhibited, and the proto-psychedelic La Folie du docteur Tube ran into trouble with censors bewildered by its distorted visual effects. But as Gance persuaded his backers to let him try making more psychological works, the films he started making, including Le Droit a la vie, Mater Dolorosa and La Dixième Symphonie (all 1917) proved hits, replete with signs of innovative visual gusto and rapidly maturing dramatic sensibility. Gance spent a brief spell in the French Army’s film unit in the last year of the war, an experience that left him deeply shaken and depressed as he witnessed the carnage and lost friends. After the war’s end, Pathé bankrolled his next film, a massive and potentially controversial undertaking. Borrowing the famous phrase Emile Zola levelled in attacking the state during the Dreyfus affair, Gance proposed a movie examining the terrible cost of the war.
The result, J’accuse, was immediately acclaimed and immensely successful in France and the UK as a public reckoning with the war through film, in a manner echoed decades later by the likes of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Deer Hunter (1978). Gance followed it with an even more ambitious work, La Roue (1920), initially nine hours long. After a detour with Max Linder’s comedy-horror film Au Secours! (1924), Gance hunkered down to begin work on a projected multi-episode portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte. He only got to make one episode, which, at six hours long and composed of an astonishing stream of imagery, left his audiences overwhelmed as it was. Napoleon, upon release in 1928, and his sound follow-up The End of the World (1931), confirmed Gance as a beggaring genius of the medium, but also a creator who far outstripped the public’s readiness to keep pace. Although he kept making films on and off for another thirty years, he never regained the same edge of vision or artistic liberty, although he did after a fashion get to extend his Napoleon cycle with The Battle of Austerlitz (1960).
But it wouldn’t be until Napoleon’s restoration and revival in the late 1970s, that it was recognised as a singular height of movie artistry, just as Gance passed away. As Gance’s two best known works, J’accuse and Napoleon seem on the face of it to offer nearly antipathetic attitudes, the former regarded as a bleak and critical antiwar tale befitting the immediate post-war mood of disillusionment and appraisal, and the latter a high-flown tribute to la gloire of Napoleon’s emergence as warrior chief exporting French Revolutionary values at the point of a gun. Gance pushed this vision to the point where some have accused it of being rather fascist in outlook. And yet J’accuse and Napoleon aren’t nearly as opposed as they might seem. Both are in large part works about the meaning of patriotism, tales where idealism and dank realism clash with often calamitous results. The giddy historical romanticism of Napoleon was couched less in love of war, which is portrayed just as ferociously and grimly as it is in J’accuse, than Gance’s faith in the nascent Emperor as a supreme example of human potential in general and the French in specific unleashed by the positive aspect of the Revolution. In short, the essence of a cause, whilst J’accuse expresses a sentiment demanding a sense of responsibility in the living as well – in short, a desperate search for a cause.
Gance’s reflexive sensibility is somewhat represented in J’accuse by his hero, the provincial poet Jean Diaz, who is at once a celebratory voice of French culture based in his adoration of its landscape, and a social critic who wields Zola’s catchcry as a perpetual intellectual motto. Gance had taken powerful inspiration from D.W. Griffith, who returned the favour by helping Gance get J’accuse attention in the US. The influence of the first reels of The Birth of a Nation (1915) is apparent on the opening of J’accuse, depicting a small Provence town as the outbreak of war is announced and the populace celebrate by dancing in the streets and marching by firelight. Jean (Romuald Joubé) lives with his mother (Mancini) and longs for his childhood sweetheart Édith (Maryse Dauvray), who has been married to François Laurin (Séverin-Mars). The two former lovers gaze at each-other from the windows of their houses on opposite sides of the town square. Édith and François’ marriage took place at the behest of Édith’s father Maria Lazare (Maxime Desjardins), a former soldier from the Franco-Prussian War and staunch revanchist who keeps a map on his wall with the territory of Alsace-Lorraine, marked in black ink. François is Lazare’s idea of a surrogate son, a man’s man and potential warrior for his cherished fantasy war, with a penchant for hunting, drinking, and domestic violence, in about that order.
Gance’s initial tableau portrayal of the Laurins’ home life sees Édith seated by the window in pining remove: Gance opens up the rest of a blacked-out frame to reveal François, sitting by his dining table, with a deer he’s killed spread out, dripping blood on the floor, as François gets hammered and is stoked to a livid rage when he catches his wife making eyes at Jean across the way. Gance segues into a brief but bloodcurdling vision of a terrified, semi-unclothed Édith at the mercy of François’ drunken attentions, grasping a handful of her hair and forcing her head back for a view of her nipples. Unsurprisingly, Édith seeks out solace with Jean, who approaches her on the banks of the river flowing by the town, but François hovers too attentively for any rekindling of their former romance. But François must serve the purpose for which Lazare has anointed him, and he joins the army, and Jean and Édith are free for a time to subsist in something like happiness. Catching wind of this thanks to his father-in-law, François returns home on leave and forces Édith to go live with François’ parents in a different town. But this proves to put Édith in the path of danger, and it’s reported, much to the grief of her father, Jean, and François, that she’s been captured during a German advance. Grief-stricken upon first learning of this development, François soon becomes convinced that Édith’s vanishing has been concocted to cover up the fact she’s now secretly living with Jean. Meanwhile Jean, given a personal motive to fight, joins up, and much to François’ surprise and disdain he soon finds himself under Jean’s command.
The storyline of J’accuse has a basis in familiar melodrama, with its propelling tension of eternal triangle versus patriotic solidarity, with scenes like a shadowy suggested rape similar to what had been seen in many propaganda movies made during the war. And yet Gance methodically complicate it with nimble psychology and a web of allusions to his concept of the war and its social background. Jean is plainly presented as his symbol of France’s higher-minded aspect – “All intelligence, all melancholy, all tenderness, all France,” as an intertitle puts it. A sensitive artist at the outset, he is also a product of maternal values, whilst Édith has been stuck with her oblivious patriarch and brute of a husband. Lazare, described as “straight and simple as a sword blade,” is an emblem of the revanchist mindset and epitome of an armchair general – he gets word of Édith’s capture whilst he and some like-minds are pouring over a map and arguing strategy – who soon finds himself utterly stricken as the reality of the war claims costs from his pride and feeling he cannot pay. Gance’s stabs at a kind of panoramic social commentary, accusing people like Lazare of dooming a younger generation to slaughter and suffering, and propagating a violent mindset through arch nationalism, has an edge of immediate anger that’s as surprising and confrontational as the social criticism in Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). Édith is the encapsulation of the long-suffering female population, literalising the notion of invasion as a form of rape and subjugation. François at first represents a blunt and ignorant streak in the national character, but also qualities of native strength.
As the story unfolds, Gance charts the changes to his characters and the smudging of their initial identities as the nature of war breaks down clean oppositions and forces hybridisation. Jean’s optimism as a poet is initially described through his book of poems entitled Les Pacifiques. His mother falls asleep in bliss as he reads to her the poem “Invocation to the Sun,” at the same point where later in the film she will die, suggesting Jean’s poem has a kind of metaphysical power too rarefied for a world he soon learns is infinitely cruel and grubby as well as bounteous beautiful. Jean proves himself every bit as gutsy and competent as François once he does become a soldier, taking the place of one of his soldiers for a solo foray across No Man’s Land to blow up a German ammunition dump, a deed that a CO tells him could just easily gain him a court martial as a medal: he earns the latter. François, a man without means to express himself like Jean, tries at first incoherently to impose will on things and people, but a weird streak of romanticism in the man first described as a drunken brute is revealed as he reverently fetishizes a glove of Édith’s he takes with him to war. Once Jean arrives at the front, he discovers François has erected a sort of shrine to his wife composed of such objects, a display that tells Jean that François, in his own way, loves Édith as much as he does.
François’s shrine to Édith resembles a similar array in Lazare’s house, except that the old man sits in worshipful regard of his own old military paraphernalia. The rhymes of sexual obsession and militarist mania echo throughout J’accuse as both evoke forms of loyal and compulsion that override all good sense, stakes for which men live and die. At one point Gance depicts Lazare plucking at one of the shining buttons on François’ uniform, an amusing flourish that nonetheless underlines Lazare’s virtually erotic delight in soldierly trappings and his equally pseudo-erotic claiming of François as a tool for killing Germans. Eventually, as Édith returns home with the child she’s had after being raped by German soldiers, the two zones converge, plunder of body and nation sparking crazed reaction. Immersion in violence and soldierly responsibility ironically prove to humanise and mature François, and once Jean approaches him and begs his forgiveness for not realising François loved Édith as much as him, the two become inseparable comrades. But the shadow of jealousy doesn’t entirely depart them. Eventually Jean is given a medical discharge as he’s exhausted and ailing from assuming too much of his command burden, and he returns home. Eventually, with a spry humour, Gance has Jean’s mother and Lazare become furtive friends as each becomes an agent for their son, trying to find out what the other knows about Édith’s fate.
On the same night Jean’s mother finally passes away after an illness, Édith turns up bedraggled and exhausted, having escaped from German occupied territory with her child, Angèle (Angèle Guys). Lazare, consumed with rage and shock as he beholds his family’s colonisation by his hated opposites, leaves with the intention of finding some way of avenging himself on the enemy, and vanishes, never to be seen again. When François next returns from leave, Édith, terrified that François might kill the child if he learns who she is, gives Angèle to Jean, who pretends it’s the displaced child of some relatives of his and determines to raise the child as perfectly French. The servants in the Laurin house, including solicitous maid Marie (Angèle Decori), help them keep the secret. But François soon comes to suspect some secret and believes Angèle might be Édith and Jean’s lovechild. He unmasks the deception by pretending that Angèle drowned in the river: Édith immediately dashes down the riverside in panic, only to find Jean and Angèle strolling together. François waits in Jean’s house for them to come there, and in the scene that follows sees François almost bash Jean’s head in before Édith manages to intervene and tell François the truth. François immediately resolves to return to the war to kill Germans, and Jean elects to return with him, this time as a private soldier.
J’accuse unfolds in three episodes, each just under an hour long (the film apparently originally contained four, but Gance, always a tinkerer, edited it down, and now only the shorter version survives). Jean and François’ return to the front concludes the second part. For a film of 1919, J’accuse is a wonder of form, for Gance’s pace of editing and richly composed visuals, as well as the careful, rhythmic construction that becomes a form of conceptual rhetoric, taking us from personal drama to incantatory poetic device describing the downfall of a generation and the heavy load of its survivors. The near-delirious editing style Gance would push to the limit on Napoleon was already present here. It’s evident even in a functional early sequence where Jean and Édith look at each-other from their respective houses. Gance gives straightforward alternations of their faces in mutual regard, but the naturalism of the shots of Édith is contrasted by semi-abstract shots of Jean and his mother against a black background, making emblems of them, and creating the suggestion of internal dialogues as the mother’s face reveals aspects of pride and concern in her son’s ardour: Édith is a figure in the world where Jean and his mother are creatures of intangible ideal. Gance portrays the workings of Jean’s mind and Lazare’s through montages of the conflicting images that pace through their minds, Jean’s littered with visions of islands and oceans, setting suns and ghostly fantasias of Edith wandering in scenes pastoral and moonlit; Lazare imagines cavalry charges and maps of conquered territory. The sight of an owl, a potential evil omen on the night of the war’s start, offers at first only two strange, glaring orbs glaring out at the startled revellers from a field of dark, before the rest of the bird is lit up.
Throughout the film Gance deploys interludes of symbolic drama and an ardour for mixing in fragments of literature and art like a distant ancestor of Jean-Luc Godard’s penchant for the same approach. Quotes from Corneille appear on screen. Artworks are arrayed in dialogue like an artistic representation of spring revels, which Jean keeps pinned over his bunk, giving way to Death riding in the sky over battlefields, and visions of dancing skeleton. These symbolic flourishes seem to have made a particular mark on Fritz Lang, who would recreate the Death motif in particular in Metropolis (1926). Radiant, pastoral illustrations are used to convey the sensibility of Jean’s poems, illustrations that are revised to dank and haunted images by the end. J’accuse, in its war scenes, certainly feels like the definition of the WWI epic as it would become a genre over the next two decades, with an immediate stylistic impact on Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and on through the likes of The Big Parade (1925), Wings (1927), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Westfront 1918 (1930), most of which would march protagonists through similar sagas commencing with the start of the war and the concomitant romanticism of the future young warriors and trace through a series of increasingly terrible and disillusioning events. But its influence might well echo further. Horror cinema had been a minor force before the war but J’accuse coincided with the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in defining the haunted spirit of the immediate era. The last part of the film hinges upon a more literal connection between the war dead and the spectre of an emerging army of revenants.
Until then J’accuse remains anchored by its personal drama, which, despite its potential banality, Gance sells entirely through conviction and observant, humane sense of character. Gance’s ambition was to be the Victor Hugo of cinema, and he has a similar talent for balancing real art and raw melodrama. To watch the film is to embark on a long and compelling trek with his characters. He imbues the steely Lazare with an edge of amusing vulnerability as he strikes up a friendship with Mme Diaz, and works in some gentle humour as the two parents become interlocutors for their feuding and suspicious sons. Gance portrays François’ partial redemption and maturation after making the viewer loathe him at first, and even elicits some sympathy for him as he’s frustrated by Édith’s initial incapacity to see his growth. But Gance is also canny enough not to believe in total transformations, as François’ cruel streak when his jealous anger is raised resurges when trying to divine the truth about Angèle. Jean has an aspect of idealised self-portrait, a warrior-poet who finds his worldview tragically misshapen by frontline experience but whose artistic gifts serve a real purpose according to Gance. He fires up his fellow soldiers with inspiring rhetoric reminding them that “inside every Frenchman is a Gaul,” a notion Gance illustrates literally by having the shade of a Gaul, looking remarkably like Asterix, striding across No Man’s Land and through the trenches by the contemporary French soldiers, achieved with double-exposure shots. Jean’s vitality as an inspirer of men is later contrasted by his equal effect as an advocate for the dead and evoker of the spiritual as well as physical landscape, scar-pocked and corpse-littered, for the edification of the residents of his home town.
Édith’s return from exile sees Gance illustrate her tale of woe by a flashback to her rape, portrayed with the silhouettes of the German soldiers projected against the wall with outreaching hand looming over her. The villains are abstracted almost into an existential threat in a shot almost exactly the same as the murderous Cesare attacking his victim in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The familiar world has become nightmarish, but the fruits of the nightmare are clasped in Édith’s hands, unveiled as Édith spread out the shawl she’s been wearing against the rain to reveal Angèle. Édith’s fear her husband would kill her child and Lazare’s departure to go looking for foreigners to kill is contrast by Jean’s mental refrain of “J’accuse,” this time illustrated with the words spelt out by bound and trussed figures tied in torturous forms to make the letters, over a painted image of a young female martyr sinking into water. Subtle Gance wasn’t, but the angry tallying of the abuses and responsibilities is very much part of his project. Jean even teaches Angèle how to write “J’accuse,” and later she helps him relearn the words when he’s terribly shell-shocked. Angèle is ganged up on by local kids who force her to play the part of a German soldier executing a prisoner, complete with Pickelhaube helmet jammed on her head, a prop she tosses in the fireplace once she returns in tears to her home.
Such scenes ram home just how raw the wounds of the war still were when Gance shot the film: it’s not exactly a work of forgive-and-forget liberalism, but rather a tribute laced with smouldering anger for the conflict’s direct impact on the country and its inhabitants. The famous climactic scenes turn the accusations around on the civilian populace themselves. When Gance remade the film with sound in 1938 as an urgent plea for peace in the countdown to the next great war, he extended its narrative to also make it a pseudo-sequel where the returned Jean labours on an invention that could render war obsolete, again smacking of a metaphor for Gance’s hoped-for impact as an artistic voice. The editing gains pace again as Gance’s rhetorical efforts increase in the older film, as Jean and François become two casualties of a calamitous onslaught, during which Jean sees the dancing skeletons romping amongst soldiers in the midst of crumbling buildings and shell-punched battlefields. When a shell lands close to Jean and François whilst they talk, many of the men around them are killed and François is left in a state of near-lunacy.
Not recognising François in his dazed state, he gives him a bunch of letters he wants sent to Édith at intervals so she’ll think he’s alive even if he’s killed in battle. Whilst Jean is hospitalised a grand battle unfolds, during which François is fatally wounded, and he finishes up in the bed neighbouring Jean, dying as they two men hold hands. Édith is the shocked witness to Jean’s return home, injured and almost deranged, but still aids him in getting people of their town to gather in her house. There, in the stark firelight cast out from her hearth, Jean begins to recite a tale, part poetic parable, part hallucinatory rant, in which he pictures himself as a solitary guard over a vast field of crosses under a sky of boiling cloud. The crosses become the corpses of the dead, which then begin to twitch and move, finally standing up and amassing into a vast new army that starts marching down the road, with Jean fleeing ahead of them in alarm. He tells the initially dismissive townsfolk that they’re coming to demand answers from the living – “If you’ve been faithful to your dead, you’ve nothing to fear” – and begins terrifying his peers by identifying their transgressions during the war, naming one as an adulterer, another as a high-living profiteer.
The march of the army of the dead is explicitly counterpointed with the march of the living under the Arch of Triumph as part of victory celebrations, in a split screen effect: official pomp and rites of healing bought at the price of sanitising and suppressing the reality of loss. Bedraggled, bandaged, wound-pocked and white-faced, Gance’s soldier ghouls lurch up to windows and gaze in upon the living, shocking them into protestations of regret and faith. One who turns up is old Maria Lazare himself, along with François. This vision of almost cosmic horror and collective guilt does at last abate and find a vague sense of mutual compassion. The army of dead halt on the threshold of the house, and begin to retreat in sheer gratitude for being able to see their friends and loved-ones, marching back along the road, carrying their grave marker crosses. This gives a salve to the townsfolk, but the sight of Angèle helping Jean write “J’accuse” again on the mantelpiece disturbs Édith, and she realises that Jean really is mad. This climax is certainly one of the great sequences of cinema, silent and beyond, although its sits in fascinating tension with the rest of the film, which is precisely about the ambiguities of private situations and how they mesh with such a vast and impersonal epoch.
Gance’s annexation of medieval imagery and outright embrace of a distorted dream vision that gives a voice to an unsayable truth clearly rhymes with the emergence of surrealism around the same time, as well as the nascent German Expressionist movement. Jean, the warrior-poet, enacts the general crisis of all humanist artists when confronted by the post-war world as he mocks his own pastoral idylls and instead conjures armies of corpses and alien landscapes: it’s like Gance is incidentally trying to portray the birth of twentieth century modernism and genres. Gance’s sensibility is ultimately directed outwards in opposition to such interiorised visions, however, his conjurations broad dramatic gestures. When he returns to his home, Jean thumbs through Les Pacifiques again and laughs in disdain for his naïvely perfect visions, and finally collapses, seemingly into a catatonic state, after accusing the sun itself of lying to humanity. If he’d made it just a couple of years later Gance might have allowed Jean to recover some sliver of the hope and meaning in his old work, but J’accuse ends with the wrenching sight of its embodiment of the national spirit left as a stricken, maddened ruin. Gance does admit one ray of light, quite literally, as the rising sun falls upon Jean’s prostrate form, suggesting that the long and evil night is over.