Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1938) is like the curate’s egg – both bad and excellent.
Overwrought psychodramas and ‘soppy-stern’ sub-plots somehow help to produce a profound historical document that demands to be understood on its own terms: as the fiercest anti-war polemic ever committed to celluloid.
Its weirdness owes everything to its origin.
Gance fought at the end of the First World War. After experiencing a near-fatal explosion, he demanded to be returned to the Front to capture the mind-bending blood and thunder of the battlefield.
The footage was released as part of a silent picture in 1919. Then Gance chose to remake it in 1937, eating alive the thing that begat it.
When we blink our way through the hectic pages of his flip book, the reused and the altered bear the visible traces of the earlier forms. ‘Holocaust’ can mean a ‘rubbing out’ – yet some impression of the erased will always remain.
And so the making of J’accuse becomes the most important (if most implied) part of its story – a mad portent of the Second World War, haunted by the memory of Verdun.
The main protagonist, Jean Diaz (Victor Francen), is the still small voice after the fire. As the ‘Christ of the trenches’ he channels the spirit of resurrection – an acting out of the (handwritten) warning from Gance himself:
‘I dedicate this film to the Dead of tomorrow’s War, who will doubtless watch it with scepticism and fail to recognise within it the image of themselves.’
This motif lends a dark sheen to the film’s many beautiful and arresting images (brought together in the stills and special collections gallery of this BFI edition).
Much has changed, but much still stays the same in the decades since J’accuse enjoyed its Second Coming. We continue to stand charged with failing to recognise the most farcical aspect of bloody human history: that those who start wars never die of them.
J’accuse was reissued by BFI in a dual format edition (DVD / Blu-ray) on July 24th, 2017.
– Presented in high definition and standard definition
– New full-length audio commentary by leading Gance expert Paul Cuff
– Stills and special collections gallery
– Illustrated booklet written and compiled by Paul Cuff, including a specially commissioned essay and newly translated contemporary reviews.