Released in 1938, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse isn’t so much a remake of his 1919 WWI epic of the same name as an impassioned plea for mercy, and a ceasefire, on the eve of global catastrophe. Constructing a sort of thematic sequel, Gance refurbishes the silent film’s anti-war ferocity and redeploys it into a leggier, two-part narrative that spends its first hour in the trenches, the second in France identifying the war’s ideological impact on Jean Diaz (Victor Francen), a military officer whose subsequent days are spent in pursuit of discovering a machine capable of preventing further wars.
Per Gance’s filmmaking writ large, elements of plotting are less driving forces throughout J’Accuse than a platform for movement, juxtaposing images, and, in this case, humanist didacticism. While speaking with members of a governing committee, Diaz makes an impassioned plea to learn the lessons of history, never acquiesce to hate, and do everything within one’s power to prevent the deaths of millions of innocent people.
Hearing this speech, any cognizant viewer will necessarily find themselves double checking the film’s production dates, given the prescience of its insight. Nearly every component of Diaz’s speech not only chills for its accuracy (for its anticipation of what Hannah Arendt will term “the banality of evil”), but also Francen’s hysterical performance, which projects a sense of utter helplessness onto Diaz without making him into a potential martyr. As the film’s second half unfolds, the first half, which at face value plays like a straightforwardly structured series of firefights and strategizing, already looks naïve and unwitting in its presumption that restaging battles could do anything other than reinforce their lure and profit motives. In effect, J’Accuse revises itself as a rhetorical move by renouncing such genre fare as in any way effective as an oppositional representational tool.
That facet alone sets J’Accuse apart from socialist realism, patriotic screeds, and other forms of cinematic propaganda by problematizing the viewer’s certainty of anything. When Diaz takes his own intentions for granted by assuming everyone else shares them, the likelihood of another war presents itself. Just after this development, Gance transforms the film into an abstract entity of low-key close-ups, quick edits, and a series of montages that explicitly recall the filmmaking techniques of the 1919 original. Gance encodes such formal choices onto Diaz’s actions, as when he pops his head through several windows while pleading for love and peace. Conventionally used for depicting acts of aggression or violence, these rapid cuts instead display Diaz’s terror; the shots are manifestations of ideological violence enacted against individuals without recourse to achieving their desired freedoms.
Throughout the film, war approaches and hovers in the distance as an inevitable certainty, leading to Diaz’s eponymous accusation against a system and anyone in it who participates in fostering another era of leaders with xenophobic stances and ideological proclivities favoring confrontation over collaboration. Still, Gance isn’t absolved of all questionable acts, most notably an end title card that explains how France has always been on “the avant-garde of social order” and will continue to rebel against threats to democracy and decency. The nationalist tenor to the statement is unmistakable; it’s also prototypically indicative of what French scholar Guy Austin calls “le résistancialisme,” a historical myth that the entirety of France supported Charles de Gaulle and the resistance during WWII instead of collaborating.
As various histories, and films like Night and Fog and Eyes Without a Face, have demonstrated, France’s collective response during WWII wasn’t without Nazi sympathizers and cooperators. While most of J’Accuse consciously refutes getting unthinkingly caught in ideology’s web, the end note is an unfortunate exception, though not one that dismisses the film’s greater demand to look oneself in the mirror and ask: “Why does it have to be this way?”
Olive Films brings J'Accuse to home video for the first time in the U.S., and, at least on the audio-visual front, the release is a triumph. One might suspect that a negative kept in the vault for so long would evince considerable damage or be incomplete in some manner, but the film appears to be in pristine condition, preserved with a top-shelf transfer that balances shades of black and gray with subtlety and grace. The clearly rendered images wash forward with suffocating force, their relevancy often a gut-churning reminder of the contemporary state of geopolitics. Every corner of nearly every frame has been treated to remove any visible dirt or debris. The 2.0 DTS-HD mix is also excellently balanced, making Jean Diaz's screams for justice all the more haunting in their unmistakable anguish. The ugly, distracting yellow subtitles are the only mistake in this otherwise flawless presentation.
More than just an anti-war statement, J'Accuse visualizes long-term memory loss as mankind's ultimate, and seemingly endless, tragedy. Olive Films's new Blu-ray vividly restores this important film to the clarity of its original, heart-rending state.