Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Wise before the event... J'Accuse (1938) out now on BFI BluRay/DVD

"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." Abel Gance 1938

When I first heard that Abel Gance had "remade" his eerie First World War epic I callously thought about the "improvements" George Lucas had made to Star Wars and THX 1138 through a remix using recent technology to "enhance" his "dated" originals. This comparison is facetious I'll admit but I'm not a great believer in remakes.

I don't think Gance chose to make this picture as an "improvement" on the already powerful silent original, he made it because he was as frightened as his hero in the latter film, that Europe was about to descend into a second war to end all wars. Actually, forget frightened: he was angry and watching the incredibly moving closing sequences of this film is every bit as poignant as the sight of off-duty soldiers in the first film who play the dead risen from their battlefield graves come to accuse the living. The first film was shot in 1918 and many of these troops returned to the front and their doom and yet, in 1938, many of the men in the film would suffer the same fate yet only the twenty first century watcher really knows that for sure, despite Gance's prediction above.

"What I said before, I say again - I'll scream it into the face of mankind, because it must be done!"

War was possible in 1938 but by no means a certainty - most people lived in hope that Herr Hitler surely couldn't be as bad as he was made out... Even as late as September, British PM, Neville Chamberlain was still talking about "peace in our time" even though he, like Stalin the following year, was playing for time as the Brits had failed to re-arm at the same rate as Nazi Germany and were just not ready...

Victor Francen speaks for his director
In his informative notes and commentary for this superb BFI release, Paul Cuff clarifies Gance's position regarding "strong leaders" by showing that the far right had been highly critical of Napoleon - a film who, literally, several people even now accuse of "fascism"... whereas noted fascist sympathiser, Lucien Rebatet viewed it as "idiotic sentimentalism".  But Gance was indeed a man on a mission and his own experience in the Great War had convinced him it had to be the "final" conflict.

In his first talkie, La Fin du Monde (1930... (just about 90 years too early, cheers Donald and Kim...) the director had mankind renouncing war and establishing a World Council, leading the charming Rebatet to label Gance a "delusional primitive". Well, speaking as one about another, I must say that I found J'Accuse - Prenez Deux very moving and, even though the story is uneven in parts, the central message never grows old. As for Rebatet, he spent the war broadcasting for Vichy radio and blaming the Jews and the third French republic for the war.

He never touched the World in the way that Gance did, he never became loved... Gance's open-hearted approach to film-making lifts this film throughout as does his casting of the exceptionally commanding and mightily-expressive Victor Francen as Jean Diaz.

Victor Francen and Francois Laurin - a difficult conversation
Francen is one of the senior troopers at a beleaguered French outpost near the front in the dying days of 1918. In a remarkable opening sequence as what's left of the little town comes under sustained fire, a dead dove falls slowly into gas-poisoned water in a fountain topped off by a statue of Christ inverted by the bombardment. When a squaddie finds the bird, the talk is of how to eat it but Jean decides to bury it instead.

As he does so, he is joined by Marcel Delaitre (Francois Laurin) whose wife Edith (Line Noro) has fallen in love with Jean... It's a key plot component from the first film but here it's covered off in minutes as the two men shake hands; although that will not be the end of it. The men join their comrades in the village bar where sad-eyed Flo (Sylvie Gance... yes, the very same) sings songs to keep the spirits alive especially for one of the men, the youngest and the handsomest, who can't gather the courage to tell Flo how he really feels. But, she knows...she knows.

The troop are ordered on a deathly patrol from which only one man has returned: Jean. With the clock ticking down on armistice it seems a sad risk to take and knowing the dangers Jean agrees to swap places with one of the men, a father of four.

Sylvie Gance sings for the boys
We don't see their final battle just the corpses being dragged back and counted as young Jean fades away in no man's land. But, they're not all dead and Jean's luck has held out and he coughs back to life perhaps foreshadowing later events or an indication that he has been chosen to represent the Dead?

Meanwhile Marcel is dying and Jean promises that there will never be anything between him and Edith. He's a man of his word but things are still very complicated as he returns to the civilian world...

Fittingly for a man who came so close to death, Jean cannot fit back amongst the mortal world and, whilst he continues to innovate for the glass company he once managed, he bases himself near to his fallen comrades and the huge cemetery at Verdun. He's searching for something, a way to stop war ever happening again.

Francois Laurin and Line Noro
The world thinks him mad and Edith and her blossoming daughter, Helene (Renee Devillers) - who loves Jean as much as her mother - try to understand the moods of this brilliant but broken man. Things are complicated by the reappearance of the man who ordered the final assault, Henri Chimay (Jean Max) who eventually becomes engaged to Helene... As war becomes more likely, the stage is set for a chilling replay of the most famous moment from the 1919 film. It's done very differently but is no less powerful aided by Francen's superb commitment.

Gance had seen action in the Great War and perhaps this gave him the motivation as well as the understanding that drove it. He did whatever he could to stop those trenches from being dug again and the tragedy of watching this film is knowing how quickly the battle lines would once again be drawn.

No wonder Gance was a "passionate pacifist". With J'Accuse he aimed to prove that "the future of humanity resides in a generation who will be the first Europeans..."  The last 72 years have seen peace in Western Europe at least, maintained by those new Europeans with or without Little Britain.

J'Accuse is out now and is available from the BFI shop on and online in DVD and Blu-ray - presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition with that new full-length audio commentary by leading Gance expert Paul Cuff. There is also a stills and special collections gallery and a handsome illustrated booklet written and compiled by Mr Cuff, including a specially commissioned essay and newly translated contemporary reviews.

One of the key releases of the year I would venture.

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