J'accuse (1919)


(director/writer: Abel Gance; cinematographers: Marc Bujard/Léonce-Henri Burel/Maurice Forster; editors: Andrée Danis/Abel Gance; music: Robert Israel; cast: Romuald Joubé (Jean Diaz), Séverin-Mars (François Laurin), Maryse Dauvray (Edith Laurin), Maxime Desjardins (Maria Lazare), Angèle Guys (Angele), Mancini (Jean’s Mother); Runtime: 166; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Charles Pathé; Lobster Film Collection; 1919-silent-France-in French with English subtitles)

“Technically innovative anti-war World War I melodrama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Pioneering French filmmaker Abel Gance (“Louise”/”Napoléon”/”Abel Gance’s Beethoven”) directed and wrote this technically innovative anti-war World War I melodrama that revolves around a love triangle. It was filmed before the armistice, and thereby Gance was able to incorporate real-life trench warfare into the film. Gance was an injured soldier who got his release during the war but re-enlisted so he could return with a film crew to the frontlines (he shot footage during the significant battle of St. Mihiel). The French government saw the project as a call to patriotism and gave him full support. Yet it turned out to be the only “peace film” made in Europe during World War I. But the energetic film, a crowd favorite, bursting with undeveloped ideas and a creaky plotline, never had a credibility or consistency to it. Also by the end, Gance seems to be really accusing the ungrateful war dodgers, the war profiteers and unfaithful wives as not worthy of the patriotic soldiers who made great sacrifices on the battlefields on their behalf to make it a better world. The use of rapid edit cuts and expressive lighting gave the film a unique arty style. The silent was remade by Gance in 1938 as a talkie, and changed its theme to a warning about the impending war.

The film opens with a photo of Gance looking into the camera and seemingly accusing those who started the war with not having a good enough reason for so many men to die.

It then picks up the story of the brutish François Laurin (Severin-Mars) married to the much younger and sensitive Edith (Maryse Dauvray), the woman the poet Jean Diaz (Romuald Joubé) loves. The unhappy marriage is forced upon her by her soldier father, Marie Lazare (Maxime des Jardins).

At the outbreak of war Laurin volunteers and is sent to the front, while Diaz remains home as a pacifist. But when Marie is captured by the Germans, Diaz enlists and winds up being in command over Laurin. The two become friends, as they realize they are fighting for the same cause. Diaz gets trench fever and is sent home to recover. Marie returns home after raped by several of her captors and has the baby. When Laurin returns home on leave, he has to deal with Marie’s rape and then returns to the trenches where he’s killed. Diaz also returns to the trenches and is wounded and has gone nuts. He has a strange vision of the dead soldiers returning from their graves (Gance uses real disfigured veterans and places them alongside extras in ghoulish make-up in this famous “March of the Dead” sequence) to check out if their loved ones are worthy of their sacrifice. When the madman Diaz dies, Edith is left alone with the child.

The version seen is an excellent restoration of the truncated film by Flicker Alley Digital Edition from the Lobster Film Collection, who put back nearly all of its three hours and all the anti-war sentiment that was removed.


REVIEWED ON 4/30/2008 GRADE: B   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/