I’ll start by telling you a story. A few years ago I worked as a Sales Manager for an Insurance Company. As part of my role I became involved in providing external training courses to largish groups of people. I’d hire out a room in a hotel somewhere and I’d waffle away for a few hours. As part of the package I’d shout the group lunch.
One lunch sticks in my mind for the lesson it taught me. The main course is long forgotten but the dessert I chose was a white chocolate and summer fruit cheesecake. I love cheesecake. It arrived at the table and was a thing of beauty. The white chocolate mascarpone had red berry jelly folded through it, the thick biscuit base was buttery and firm. It was perfect.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but with hindsight, I can confirm that was the best cheesecake I’ve ever eaten. That moment was one that would never be beaten. I was mid 20’s and I’d attained cheesecake nirvana. I coined a phrase for that moment. I cheesecaked.
The first time I watched todays film I had that cheesecake sensation. A shiver down my spine and maybe a dull ache between the eyes. That sense of going slightly numb down one side as a middle C rings in your ears. I had cheesecaked. I wouldn’t ever see a better silent era Great War Film than J’accuse (1919).
This film first came to my attention in the same way as most others. It was just a name on a list I found on the internet. Nothing more, nothing less. Just like the vast majority of other Great War Films. I found the dreadful ‘Shout at the Devil’ (1976) and ‘Deathwatch’ (2002) the very same way. Having found the film, it probably sat waiting to be watched for a fair old while too. When I finally got round to firing it up I knew within the first minute that it was a work of genius.Within the first minute, no, within the first 10 seconds I knew this was something special. It opens onto a field in France. A large group of soldiers walk into formation spelling out “J’accuse”. They sit in-situ and the scene cuts. The important point here is that these soldiers weren’t just extras. They were real soldiers on leave from the front, and this was 1918. The war was still being fought and these soldiers would return to the front lines and in most cases would be dead within weeks. Here is the main reason this is such a great film. It was written and partially filmed while the war was still being fought, and as such the realism of the battles, the mental state of the soldiers, the emotions felt by those at the front and those who remained at home is palpable. The emotions are real and raw and they are communicated in a sharp, stark manner.
I have come to realise that there are Great War Films out there that can make you feel like you are face down in a shell hole smelling the death and destruction of no man’s land. The noise of shells whistling overhead that might have your name on them, the look on the faces of the young men, brothers, sons and best friends as they march forward to their deaths. J’accuse portrays these elements well but it goes much further. It also takes you into the minds of the soldiers.
There is a scene where the soldiers are writing one last letter to their loved ones prior to a major battle. There is a malaise on them, they are clearly expecting to die in the ensuing battle. It allows us a windows into the still smarting and fresh memories of those who had served into the last days of the conflict. Their final, reminiscing thoughts and brave understatements are there, cursively slapped on the screen. They tell their Mothers not to worry and try to convince their loved ones it’s for the best.
The whole film is a partial epistolary with many of the title cards bearing their sentiment in the form of letters to various unseen loved ones. Abel Gances’ direction still appears fresh and innovative nearly 100 years on from when it was first created. We jump from French rural Idyll to industrialised hell in the blink of an eye and then back again from a battlefield to warm, homely, family life. The editing is sharp and artistic. There are camera tricks too. In one scene near the end of the film we see the smiling head of a poilu laying in the drying mud in the sun of a warm summers’ day. The camera slowly pans down to reveal the soldier buried in the mud of a shell-hole. Without him moving a muscle his contented smile becomes a bitter grimace. Gance drops the focus 3 feet and our poilu moves from happy life to sour, stinking death.
Gance showed no fear when it came to the subject matter. There is a gang rape scene which is integral to the story and very well handled. It is shown in silhouette against the wall of a barn, the victim cowering as the ghoulish German rapists creep menacingly towards her. I hope I’m not the only one who can see the potential influence this may have had on Murnau’s Nosferatu.
There is plenty of expressionism here for us to splendour in. At points throughout the film, when Gance felt the need to underline the title and meaning of the film he bludgeons the viewer with ‘J’accuse’ written with anger across the screen. There are scenes with skeletons dancing in circles as the protagonists consider their fates, or superimposed behind a foreground of a stained glass window.
The film focuses on its’ title in the final 30 or so minutes. The dead of the battlefields rise and slowly return to their homes where they interrogate the living to justify their deaths. It’s harrowing stuff and all the more poignant for the fact that, again, these extras would return to the battlefield and, in the most part, be dead within weeks. Even the sun is accused for continuing to shine upon the World, for letting time continue.
I could go on forever about this film. There is so much more I could focus on, but I’ll stop there. It’s an amazing Great War Film. The rawness of the emotions and the bitterness of the direction when coupled with the immediacy and lack of sentimentality make J’accuse an unforgettable experience. This film is better than that cheesecake.
You really must own this film. Clicky Clicky here to get your copy.